Ricky, a formerly drug-addicted ex-con, was describing his participation in the Anacostia Men's Employment Network (AMEN), a Lutheran outreach for unemployed and underemployed men. He had earned an AMEN diploma, signifying his participation in a three-week course on how to "get and keep a job."
AMEN is an example of what social scientists call a faith-based organization,or FBO--a religious institution that delivers social services. Although FBOs have existed for decades, they have received much attention during the presidential campaign because of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's support of them. Although there is no comprehensive academic study quantifying the success of these programs, using preliminary evidence, observers cite their extraordinary success rates with drug addicts, prisoners, and the homeless.
But should we support them? I went looking for answers in some of this country's most desperate inner cities. And I concluded that we should--at least for now.
Standing on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Washington, D.C.'s crime-ridden Anacostia neighborhood one day a few months ago, I tried to reconcile the depressing surroundings with Ricky's cheery temperament. Although AMEN has an explicit policy of not proselytizing, this is not a standard social service agency. The optimism is so overwhelming as to be surreal. The building abounded with smiling pictures, including a black Madonna cradling a black baby Jesus. Outside, however, the familiar signs of inner-city poverty were all there--the hooded brothers on the corners, the teenage sisters pushing baby carriages, the unceasing traffic into the convenience store.
But the smooth voice of Chester Hart, an AMEN instructor, snapped me out of my focus on the depressing surroundings. "Negatives--racism, prison--are a fact of life. You know they exist and you choose to move on.... The issue is not that I went to prison, but what I did while I was in prison. I left prison with skills that I did not have when I entered. That shows initiative."
A 12-year veteran of state prison, Chester has a sharp mind and a vivid way with metaphors. He described the dizzying array of programs with which he'd been involved in prison. Not even a year after his release, he was already involved in running AMEN. Yet I still found myself wondering whether Chester's success was sustainable. If AMEN's statistics are any guide, the answer is yes. According to the program's directors, 60% of those who begin the program complete it, and 65% of the graduates find employment or pursue further training.
GRACE, a faith-based program for gang members in Detroit, boasts similarly promising numbers. According to a 1999 report by Public Private Ventures, a research foundation that studies FBOs, there were no episodes of recidivism among the 250 youths served by GRACE. Moreover, the job retention rate among former GRACE participants exceeds 90%.
Governor Bush is clearly excited about these programs. In perhaps his most powerful speech to date, Bush spoke about the transformation of previously marginal lives: "Addicts become examples. Reckless men become loving fathers. Prisoners become spiritual leaders." He spoke of organizations who "share...in common...a belief in the transforming power of faith. A belief that no one is finally a failure or a victim, because everyone is the child of a loving and merciful God."
The genesis of Bush's enthusiasm lies in something called Charitable Choice, a little-known provision of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that allows states to contract with non-governmental entities, including religious groups, to provide social services. The law also protects religious providers againstattempts to secularize their social service programs. Following passage of Charitable Choice, Bush issued a directive to Texas social service agencies instructing them to recruit FBOs and to include the protective language of Charitable Choice in any contracts the state signed. Although Vice President Gore has recognized "the unique power of faith" in combating social ills, he has yet to issue any specific policy proposals.
Bush's campaign rhetoric makes it sound like the GOP invented inner-city FBOs--but in reality, churches have always served the inner city. In Philadelphia, for instance, more than 90% of congregations have at least one social service program. So there is something disingenuous about Republicans taking creditfor programs that have existed for decades, if not centuries. As many commentators have argued, there are perhaps reasons to doubt Republican motives, particularly since the GOP is not known for its devotion to inner-city communities.