In 1996 the primary legislative basis for federal assistance to the poor was appreciably amended with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. Within this new and complex law section 104 was established which has become known as the "Charitable Choice" provision. At its heart this provision requires states to permit faith-based organizations (FBOs) to be eligible, along with other nonprofit organizations, in providing contracted social services. Moreover, the section forbids the states from requiring such a faith-based organization to "alter its form of internal governance or remove religious arts, icons, scripture or other symbols" as a condition for serving as a contracted provider of social services.
The political climate which nurtured the development of this Charitable Choice provision; the experiences of FBOs which have provided services under this provision; and, the initial research that has been undertaken to analyze various aspects of the consequences of this provision, together are the focus of this essay. The Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches seeks annually to identify trends, directions and degree of changes observable within the American religious landscape. The vigor of our present national debate over the appropriateness and potential for a public-private partnership in service provision qualifies as a major trend which emerged from the political arena to have as yet undetermined impact upon religion in America.
A Peculiar Lineage
The political will to formulate and enact the Charitable Choice provision of the welfare reform law came from a somewhat unexpected quarter. The Charitable Choice section of the Welfare Reform Legislation was sponsored by then Senator John Ashcroft, Republican of Missouri. Moreover prominent conservative organizations including the Christian Coalition and The Family Research Council actively supported its passage.
Some researchers including Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona have suggested that this support was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to see broader church involvement in meeting the needs of the poor as well as an interest in redirecting public resources to religious organizations.
The very American Christians whose life experience and theology have predisposed them to be wary of entanglement with government urged the provision's passage. Those mainline churches which have long, and until recently, enjoyed religious cultural hegemony were most persistent in their cautions concerning the dangers of public monies being expended through private sectarian channels. Thus it was, with this confusing political and ecclesial lineage that the Charitable Choice provision became law.
Choosing Charitable Choice
The origins of the Charitable Choice provision might well have led one to predict that congregational behaviors would mirror the national religious leadership in this debate. One would have predicted religious conservatives would enthusiastically give leadership to congregational participation in local social service provisions while liberal leaning congregations demurred. Such a prediction emerging would have been roundly repudiated by the experience now observable in the first four years of operation. Not only is the emerging pattern contrary to the prediction but it is now clear that other factors beyond church-state theory and liberal vs. conservative social thought is determinative. While no nationwide study to date has thoroughly investigated the demographic profile of all participating congregations, much less examined the correlation of belief and practice, some compelling early work has been done.
Mark Chaves' work, reported by The Urban Institute, concluded that "large congregations and especially predominantly African American congregations are most likely to seek public monies." This finding is corroborated by the work of Arthur E. Farnsley updated through The Polis Center of Indianapolis.