Close-up view from behind of two hands, a child's hand holding two fingers of a woman's hand. Both are wearing coats.

#115 Jan/Feb 2001 — Faith-Based Initiatives

(Un)Charitable Choices?

When FBOs partner with state and local governments, do they compromise their capacity not only to advocate for families, but for truth-telling on a larger scale?

Photo by Flickr user Trish, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Close-up view from behind of two hands, a child's hand holding two fingers of a woman's hand. Both are wearing coats.

Photo by Flickr user Trish, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Fall 2000, the “Reverend Annie” agreed to participate in a “Charitable Choice” demonstration project that would involve faith-based organizations (FBOs) in New York City’s welfare-to-work process. A former welfare recipient herself, the Rev. Annie (whose story is a composite of a number of pastors’ stories) saw the demonstration project as an opportunity to respond to the real needs of families on welfare. While her congregation had a long history of ministering to emergency food and clothing needs, she thought this project offered a chance to be more proactive, hopefully bringing welfare recipients on a journey to self-sufficiency similar to the one she had experienced.

In the project the Rev. Annie’s congregation joined, FBOs conduct outreach to and assessment of families in which a parent’s welfare benefits have been cut off for lack of compliance but the children’s benefits continue. The assessment determines whether parents are employed and whether they wish to be back in compliance. The FBOs turn this information over to the welfare department, where the case is either rebudgeted or fully closed, or the parent is re-engaged in the welfare-to-work process, usually workfare.

The Rev. Annie soon found there was little room in this arrangement for the creative program she had designed. Parents interested in additional job readiness training at the FBO usually had to fit it in on top of the 35-hour simulated workweek required by the welfare department. Many others – such as disabled parents, parents caring for disabled family members, and parents attempting to complete college – had legitimate reasons for exemption from workfare, but had had trouble exempting themselves from the complex requirements.

Nonetheless, if a parent she was working with was for any reason not interested in becoming compliant, the Rev. Annie had to decide whether to submit an assessment that might lead to the whole family losing its benefits. Disregarding such an assessment, although tempting, would mean not getting paid, because under her performance-based contract the congregation was only compensated when it hits specific milestones identified by the welfare department. In most cases, the Rev. Annie’s time and effort far exceeded the procedures and payments associated with her contract, anyway.

As her good intentions ran up against punitive welfare policies and constrictive contracting arrangements, the Rev. Annie began to realize that the idea of Charitable Choice was not as simple as it had seemed.

The Quiet Devolution

Since 1996, responsibility for welfare services has been rapidly devolving, and it seems likely to keep doing so. New York City’s demonstration project is part of this larger strategy to reduce welfare caseloads and gradually shift responsibility for the social safety net from the government to the private sector, including family, religious congregations, larger nonprofits, and for-profit companies.

Charitable Choice, a contested yet hastily included provision in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (a.k.a. welfare reform), requires that states using nonprofits or for-profits to deliver social services also include religious congregations and faith-based organizations as eligible contractors. With the leadership of the initial sponsor of Charitable Choice – former Senator and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft – the provision was also included in the Community Services Block Grant in 1998 and a child health bill in 2000.

Government cooperation with faith-based nonprofits is nothing new. For decades, faith-based organizations have received government funding for emergency food, child care, youth, and housing programs. But the Charitable Choice provision for the first time allows churches, synagogues and mosques to receive such funds directly, without establishing a separate nonprofit organization. It also contains several sections that seek to protect the religious distinctiveness of the faith-based organization or congregation. The former restriction on “pervasively sectarian,” or explicitly religious, services has been lifted, though congregations are still supposed to be able to distinguish separate funding streams for religious services and social services. Charitable Choice also allows congregations to favor candidates with a “common faith perspective” in their hiring process.

Discussion Begins

The recent presidential campaign brought Charitable Choice and faith-based partnerships to the forefront of public consciousness. George W. Bush held up faith-based social programs as the antidote to the big government he demonizes. Al Gore, too, called for new partnerships between government and religious groups to provide social services. With all this attention, Charitable Choice has become a catchphrase for all faith-based involvement in poverty issues, from the services offered by Catholic Charities to unpaid, voluntary efforts to mentor welfare recipients. However, relatively few technical Charitable Choice arrangements – where an explicitly religious program receives funding for a specific set of welfare-to-work tasks – have so far been made.

That may change. Charitable Choice is likely to be the first major policy seriously promoted by the Bush administration. In October 2000, just in time for election day, the Center for Public Justice, a think tank which promotes Charitable Choice, issued a state-by-state “report card” to evaluate Charitable Choice “compliance,” hoping to encourage states to reform their contracting policies in order to allow the easy application of Charitable Choice. Texas alone received an A+ and the only other A’s were granted to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana. The vast majority of states received an F.

Although there was some initial furor surrounding Charitable Choice in 1996, critics have been relatively silent until recently. In the past six months, however, two lawsuits – one in Texas and one in Wisconsin – have been filed, emphasizing concerns about public money funding sectarian services. Charitable Choice was attached to 10 different bills in the last legislative session, but only one became law, and the provision – particularly the impact its hiring allowances might have on civil rights – was hotly debated on the floor.

The faith community is also becoming increasingly critical of Charitable Choice. Washington offices of many Protestant denominations, including the American Baptist Churches, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church (USA), Unitarian Universalist Association, United Methodist Church, and the United Church of Christ, have issued statements of concern. In addition, the Central Conference of Rabbis, Hadassah, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Council on Public Affairs and other Jewish groups have voiced opposition. Many of these religious organizations are concerned about the undue influence of religion on the public sector.

Other voices in the religious community are concerned about how the secular world might corrupt the realm of the sacred. “I remain convinced that there are good reasons to keep church and state separate,” said Henry Brinton, pastor of the Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia, in the Washington Post (9/9/00), “especially for congregations that want to pursue their ministries freely and remain vital and voluntary communities of faith.”

Ministry or Bureaucracy?

One of the rationales for Charitable Choice has been that religious congregations are better suited for social services than the government, and that they should be allowed to play to their strengths. But some FBOs working in Charitable Choice partnerships, like the Rev. Annie’s congregation, find themselves instead participating in a pre-existing maze of compliance and eligibility that they did not create and may not understand. In addition, congregations find themselves in binds daily, torn between fulfilling their contracts and advocating for families.

Dilemmas from New York City’s demonstration project illustrate this tension. For example, the faith-based contractors are encountering sanctioned families in which the parent has one or two semesters of college remaining. Although college is more likely than workfare to lead to self-sufficiency, if the assessment from the FBO indicates that the parent is unwilling to give up college to comply with workfare, then the whole family’s benefits may be cut off. How can a congregation in good faith report this family’s strategy for ultimate independence? Can FBOs be advocates and carry out the work of the welfare department at the same time?

Can We Speak Truth to Power?

An enduring role of the faith community has been as a prophetic voice for justice and humanity. When FBOs partner with state and local governments, do they compromise their capacity not only to advocate for families, but for truth-telling on a larger scale?

Constitutionally, it shouldn’t be that way. But in recent decades, many community development corporations (CDCs) have lost or experienced a slowdown in government funds as a result of speaking out against certain policies. Faith-based CDCs with separate nonprofit status have not been immune to this kind of punishment. The contracts for New York City’s faith-based demonstration project even have an explicit gag clause prohibiting the contractors from evaluating or expressing public assessments of the program without the permission of the welfare department.

Not Enough Money

New York City is not alone in promoting performance-based contracts through which FBOs are paid by strict milestones, receive a minimal downpayment, and are expected to have revenue on hand for staff and infrastructure. Congregational leaders, not intimately familiar with the language of such contracts, can sometimes find themselves in over their heads. Others choose not to get involved in the first place. In fact, a study issued by the Center for Public Justice in March 2000 suggested that states’ increasing use of performance-based contracts may be slowing the entry of new FBOs into Charitable Choice with their unattractive terms.

FBOs have also found the standard Requests for Proposals cumbersome. In the future, the contracting process may be made more “user-friendly” to encourage the faith community to submit more proposals. If so, new accountability procedures will be needed as well.

Civil Rights and Diversity

A significant but often hidden element of Charitable Choice is its emphasis on religious distinctiveness. The United States contains a diversity of faith expressions including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. It is in the public sphere – schools, libraries, public services agencies – that we all mix. Charitable Choice regulations do stipulate that groups may not discriminate against clients on account of religious belief and that the state must arrange for an alternative service provider if a client objects to receiving help through a religious body. In many sparsely populated jurisdictions, however, such an alternative may not even exist.

Even more disturbingly, some conservative congregations are unwilling to offer interfaith social services. At last year’s “Call to Renewal Summit,” a gathering of evangelical and mainline denominations sponsored by Sojourners magazine, one proponent of Charitable Choice claimed that interfaith work would “water down” the Christian message. This person suggested that Jews go to Jewish social service agencies and Muslims go to Muslim agencies. It became clear at this gathering that many people interpret this legislation as a way to promote Christian morality alone.

Similarly, fundamental civil rights are in jeopardy when Charitable Choice proponents insist on preserving religious distinctiveness in employment practices. In the past, nonprofit religious social service providers have been able to discriminate in hiring as long as they were doing so with private funds. Charitable Choice sets a new precedent, enabling discrimination with public funds. Many, including the Congressional Black Caucus, are concerned that this policy suggests that discrimination is acceptable in order to uphold religious beliefs. They are worried about what this could mean for treatment of staff or clients based on race, gender or sexual orientation.

The Common Good?

The language of welfare reform and Charitable Choice treats poverty as an individual problem, not a systemic one. The welfare reform law is based on a foundation of moralisms about marriage, out-of-wedlock births, and independence. This moralistic tone helps to set up religious organizations as the appropriate locus for addressing poverty.

But do congregations want to further a policy agenda that reduces government responsibility to the common good? Some social services may long have been shared by private institutions, but welfare services – redistributive functions like cash benefits and food stamps – have always been government’s responsibility. No matter how alluring the concept, faith-based organizations cannot fill the immense hole created by shrinking government programs and funding. To take on the social service programs government has carried, the budget of each church, synagogue, and mosque would have to increase by $225,000. (The annual budget of the average congregation is only $100,000).

Prophetic Voices Needed

There are clearly many reasons for both congregations and social justice advocates to be concerned about the expansion of Charitable Choice and to watch its implementation closely. The Charitable Choice debate also provides an opportunity for the faith community to educate itself, down to the congregational level, about social policy and its impact on the lives of “the least of these.” The invitation to partner with the government forces congregations to revisit their ethical frameworks and ask themselves whether or not such an invitation complements or contradicts their theology. FBOs must ask critical questions about who is setting the agenda and what they are being asked to do. Otherwise they may risk alienating the very neighbors they hope to serve.

The Rev. Annie and her fellow contractors have taken on this challenge by beginning a conversation with welfare recipients and welfare advocates. They are attempting to further their understanding of welfare reform and to navigate and debate the role of faith-based organizations in the delivery of public services. Such conversations are critical in establishing strong alliances between the faith and advocacy communities.

There are many other roles that congregations can perform in order to be part of the solution to poverty. Congregations can play a key role in pushing for government involvement in job creation, advocating for welfare recipients’ access to public higher education, and insisting on safety net programs for those who need them. And people of faith can push for figures that show what’s really happening to people when they are leaving the welfare rolls.

The next opportunity to reshape welfare policy will come later this year, when welfare reform is due for reauthorization. The terms of that debate are being shaped today and the faith community can’t afford to not participate. In a society flush with prosperity, people of faith must raise prophetic questions about why so many have been left behind. Too many lives are at risk to remain silent.


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