2016-07-27
"I only left prison in January and look where I am now. God meant for me to be here. He expects results. I expect results."

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.

Examples abound of FBOs with similar success rates. Consider Faithworks, a program in New York City for drug-addicted homeless men whose success rates are promising. One year after leaving the program, its leaders say that 80% of its clients are still holding steady jobs and leading drug-free lives.

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 against attempts 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 credit for 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.

And there are more fundamental concerns. Many people have misgivings about the government's funding of religious institutions--and we should not underestimate these concerns. A parallel example is found in the debate surrounding public funding of vouchers for religious schools. Political elites steadfastly oppose vouchers for parochial schools, even in the face of evidence that religious schools improve the achievement levels of inner-city children and that urban residents support these programs.

Opponents argue that state support of religious schools violates the church-state separation. It's hard to imagine that they would be enthusiastic about delegating traditionally public responsibilities, such as administering welfare programs, to religious groups.

Despite these concerns, I believe FBOs deserve support. Religious institutions represent the best available mechanism for reaching those individuals who live at the margins of society, exhibiting multiple anti-social behaviors and making life tough for so many others. These are a tiny minority of poor black urban residents, but they make life hellish for their neighbors who play by the rules. In conversations with both the transformers and the transformed, individuals repeatedly stressed that there was more on the line than the here and now. They were responding to godly incentives.

This technique may make people nervous. Yet church programs do provide incentives for individuals to behave constructively in an environment in which incentives have become radically skewed. I was reminded of this fact in a conversation with Ken Johnson, a lay pastoral worker at the Azusa Christian Community, which does outreach work with juvenile offenders in Boston.

"Many of these brothers who are on the street terrorizing folks do not fear anyone, including God," he said. "We teach them to love and fear God. We teach that certain behaviors have consequences, not just temporal consequences but eternal consequences."

In some communities, the incentives have become so perverted that those who make "good" choices pay dearly. One example is Cedric Jennings, an honor student at Ballou High School in southeast Washington, D.C., whose travails brought him to the attention of a Wall Street Journal writer who chronicled his story. Because Cedric was on the honor roll, his classmates tortured him. Indeed, Cedric's academic excellence also earned him his father's disapproval. A formerly incarcerated drug dealer, Cedric's father taunted his son as a "whitey" and remained suspicious of his success even when he gained admission to Brown University.

Thus, for all Cedric's efforts, it was not clear he was "winning" within the context of inner-city Washington. Through his academic excellence, he incurred tremendous social costs and even risked his safety.

So what is a rational individual likely to do in this situation? As Pastor Johnson of the Azusa Church in Boston explained, by providing "spectacular payoffs for good behavior," church programs short-circuit this radical skewing of incentives. They give the Cedrics of this world reasons to persist in spite of skewed daily incentives.

And that is why we should allow religious institutions a chance to fix inner-city problems.

Most Americans are not absolutists in their opposition to government funding of FBOs. They recognize there is something singularly discomfiting about sounding off on the virtues of church-state separation, even as poor black men are dying on the ground.

There is still no comprehensive study of FBOs' success in delivering social services and reducing anti-social behaviors. These programs are provisional, and future support is contingent on whether they actually work. Meanwhile, we can rest easy in the knowledge that we are supporting programs that are well worth a "risk." They are simply an attempt to allow people a way out of circumstances so dire that, for many, nothing short of religious intervention will allow them to escape.

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