Faith and Innovation

The mixture of religion and social service worries a lot of people. But is it really a problem?
November 2002
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Among the many controversial components of the 1996 federal welfare reform law is its push for greater inclusion of faith-based organizations in providing social services. To liberal critics, this represents the intrusion of the Christian right onto secular public policy, raising the specter of blurred church and state responsibilities and relationships across the board. Worst of all, critics have insisted, faith-based incentives might ultimately expose an extra-vulnerable population of poor people to sectarian proselytizing at government expense.

Nor, for that matter, have organized churches been uniformly enthusiastic about the faith-based idea; some church leaders have worried about government money and rules compromising their religious missions.

Given all those concerns, it's interesting to read a series of recent reports from the Hudson Institute, a conservative but nonpartisan think tank, concluding that such concerns have simply not been borne out. Based on an intensive study of 15 states from the spring of 2001 to the spring of 2002, these documents suggest instead that a whole new community of energetic and creative providers has entered the service-delivery field.

In Orlando, Florida, under the auspices of the faith-based provisions of the 1996 law, Spanish-speaking residents are attending a church- based job-help program called Steps to Personal Success. In Olney, Illinois, the Good Samaritan of Richland community is counseling individuals in danger of losing their jobs. In Milwaukee, St. Mark's African Methodist-Episcopal Church is helping sanctioned cases get back on the welfare-to-work path. In all, the Hudson study found nearly 600 different faith-based organizations (FBOs) that had entered into more than 700 contracts in the 15 states, adding up to nearly $125 million in generally small contracts of less than $100,000 each.

When it comes to pressure--either on clients to embrace the faith, or on churches to modify their message--the studies have turned up few problems. According to the reports, "faith-based contractors appear to be active in complying with the charitable choice rules," meaning that they pay attention to the explicit church/state separation guidelines, and offer specialized training on the guidelines for staff and volunteers. Fewer than 6 percent of the contractors agreed with the statement that "public money will compromise FBOs' religious mission."

Most important, though, the initiative has encouraged hundreds of new experiments in how to tackle poverty and all its attendant social misery in communities across the country. FBOs have been "a real green light to states and localities to reach out to the faith community in new and creative ways," says Amy L. Sherman, author of the Hudson study.

Green light or not, however, it has taken states and localities quite a while to figure out that the feds actually did them a favor by incorporating faith-based language not only into the welfare reform law but also into the Welfare-to-Work grants program, the Community Services Block Grant program and various Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration programs. In general, states and localities were slow to reach out to the faith-based community.

Over the five years since the welfare law took effect, however, states and localities have grown much more adept at using it to experiment with new forms of service delivery. To a great extent, this experimentation was fueled by the "welfare windfall," the surplus dollars allotted to states under the 1996 act that were not needed for basic welfare services.

"With the budget surpluses came a greater degree of creativity and outreach," Sherman says. Nineteen states now have special faith-based liaisons to the religious community, who solicit proposals from churches and church-affiliated nonprofit groups.

Surprisingly, more than half the contractors taking advantage of the faith-based provisions have been actual congregations, rather than the not-for-profits that had been seen as the most likely beneficiaries. One fourth of the contractors had never tried for a government grant before the provisions of the 1996 law encouraged them to do so.

The only cloud on the current horizon, according to the Hudson reports, is the possibility that shrinking state and local budgets may cause governments to refocus resources on more traditional services and away from the smaller, more innovative efforts that have been the hallmark of FBO grants.

But in the face of such shrinking budgets, and with caseloads that increasingly reflect the very toughest cases, this might be the best time of all to embrace a faith-based approach to social problems. A little divine intervention couldn't hurt; it could help a lot.