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.
Amy Sherman's overview of the early years of implementing Charitable Choice was published in July 2000 in "The Christian Century." (Click here to read a version of this piece, published on Beliefnet.)Her own conclusion that opponents' worst fears about Charitable Choice have not been realized might well have been accompanied by similar assertion that neither have its proponents greatest hopes been fulfilled. Provisions in the law itself contain potentially confusing directives concerning FBOs which only time and greater experiential learning are likely to correct. Even with such evolving clarity few observers doubt that a host of church-state implications will ultimately require attention.
The early research which has been published gives ample evidence of the importance of careful analysis of the consequence of the now five year practices of the states. Through this provision and its aftermath local congregations (and other local religious agencies) have been "discovered" by governmental agencies, philanthropic foundations and researchers alike. It is not certain that they will ever be the same again. Few have made note that congregations in poor neighborhoods are often poor themselves and lacking in infrastructure. The churches with the requisite space, financial accounting ability and wherewithal to maintain such programs are most commonly in affluent communities. In such settings job training, drug counseling etc. are generally purchased privately.
No area of consideration is more significant than the willingness and capacity of local congregations to respond. While most churches take pride in their commitment to serve the indigent at their doorstep they lack the capacity for sustained work with large numbers of persons on an indeterminate basis. The present research points up the need for government planners to take cognizance of these congregational realities when projecting the ultimate capacity of FBOs to provide services. The establishment of a White House office on Faith Based Initiatives may well signal a completely unfettered approach with further expansion of expectations of FBOs projected. Such governmental expectations may well outstrip FBO's willingness and capacity for such service. Charitable Choice is apt to have long-term consequences for governmental agencies, FBOs, and the poor themselves. Our current national debate must be tempered by careful longitudinal research to gauge the very real outcomes of this public -- private partnership.
Much is at stake in this debate -- options for the poor, the role of government, the faithfulness of religious bodies and the character of our society. Such great consequences merit careful consideration. For the well-being of all such inquiries are urgently needed.