Best-Kept Secret

Charitable choice is one of the most elusive and confounding features of the current political and religious landscape in America. Since 1996, when Congress passed this provision allowing faith-based organizations to receive government money for their social service activities, charitable choice has been debated in divinity school classrooms, the halls of government, and among church-state separationists.

Social conservatives argue that the government cannot be held solely responsible for the heavy burden of caring for the nation's poor, so for them shifting responsibility to the faith community is a very good thing. On the other side of the aisle, liberals are relieved that government is still actively participating in the provision of social services. Both agree on one thing - there is something unique that faith-based groups can contribute toward solving the problem of poverty in America.

But for those doing the day-to-day work of social justice, these debates can be seen as rather abstract. Until recently, the actual on-the-ground effect of the charitable choice legislation was largely unknown.

A series of recent surveys and reports have now emerged, however, that raise new questions about whether charitable choice is working as it was intended to, how it will impact the nation's poor, and whether the governmental and religious communities will be able to negotiate each other's turf.

Most of the new studies reach similar conclusions. Charitable choice shows great promise, but it cannot hope to fulfill that promise until a more fundamental need is met - more congregations and faith-based social service organizations need to know that charitable choice even exists.

What is it, anyway?

Simply put, charitable choice is the provision of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, also known as Welfare Reform or the Welfare Act, that requires faith-based and non-faith-based social service initiatives to be considered equally for state government funds. The original provision has grown incrementally to include a wide range of social services, such as senior citizen care, child welfare, housing, and substance abuse prevention.

The 1999 Charitable Choice Expansion Act, introduced by Sen. John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican, would bring all social service programs subsidized by the government (with the exception of education) under the charitable choice law. This bill remains in committee.

The inclusion of the charitable choice provision in the already controversial 1996 legislation was a bit of a consolation prize to the faith community, many of whom had lobbied strongly against the whole legislation, which "ended welfare as we know it."

Organizations with connections to religious groups have long received federal funds for their social service activities; Catholic Charities is one among scores of federally funded organizations with religious roots. But the innovative element of charitable choice is that faith-based groups are no longer required to form a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit organization to conduct their social service activities, nor are they required to eschew the religious nature of their work.

Charitable choice is somewhat controversial. A coalition of 46 organizations, led by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, says that charitable choice blurs the line of separation between church and state. Anticipating these concerns, the legislation provides that, as its name suggests, the allocation of funds be about "choice."

The underlying idea is that free-market competition is a concept well applied to the provision of social services. Religious groups at the congregational level have a noble history of reaching out to those on the outskirts of society. Therefore, they should be allowed to compete with secular nonprofit groups for the resources to make their social justice missions a reality.

The provision is also rooted in the constitutional concept that forbids government to discriminate against organizations and individuals on the basis of their religious affiliation. In other words, religious groups shouldn't be shut out from competing for government grants just because they are religious, nor should they be required to sanitize the religious nature of their missions in order to secure funds.

At the same time, though, the legislation carefully walks the thin line between non-discrimination and unfair accommodation. Faith-based organizations can be anything from ministries within congregations to interfaith partnerships to coalitions of nonprofit organizations and religious groups. So in order to quell some church-state nervousness over forced religious indoctrination, in no way can religion be a qualifier for who may receive social services from faith-connected groups. Charitable choice does allow religious groups to hire staff based on religious belief.

Here's how a religious or faith-based organization might come to receive funds from charitable choice. The Welfare Act provides that states receive from the federal government what are called "block grants," undivided sums of money that each state is then charged with distributing. Once a state receives its block grant, the state and local departments of human and social services survey their areas and determine where the money is most needed.

Then the state agencies put out queries that invite social service organizations to submit proposals for programs such as domestic violence prevention, job training, or mentoring. Faith-based and secular groups alike can answer these "requests for proposals." The program that best addresses the needs of the community in question receives the funding, with the grant recipient working in close contact with the state agencies.

Is it working?

Social service provision in this country is a vast and varied territory. But two major research initiatives are attempting to assess how successful charitable choice has been in negotiating this terrain.

While many churches are interested in pursuing government funding for their social service projects, they simply are not aware that charitable choice resources are available to them, concludes Mark Chaves, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, in a study based on a national survey of congregations.

Fifty-seven percent of congregations have social service projects, according to Chaves' findings, but less than half of these, only 24 percent, say they are aware of the charitable choice legislation. Further, more than 1,000 congregations, 36 percent of those surveyed, said that they were interested in applying for government funds, which indicates, according to the report, that "the 'market' for charitable-choice implementation in American religion apparently is fairly sizable."

While Chaves' findings indicate that this "market" is far from sated, a second landmark study found an ever-growing number of congregations and faith-based organizations that are coming to understand how they can benefit from charitable choice.

"The Growing Impact of Charitable Choice," recently released by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Justice, is a catalogue of 125 programs in nine states that feature collaboration between government and faith-based organizations. The catalogue, compiled by Amy L. Sherman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, reports both financial and non-financial collaborations between the government and religious groups. Charitable choice legislation has, according to Sherman's research, resulted in "cooperative relationships between government and the faith community" in at least 23 states.

Church-state separation is "a non-issue for most," the study found. Sherman estimates that of the more than 80 financial church-state relationships she studied, around 3,000 poor people were affected by the service. Of that number, only two individuals had complained that a service organization was "too religious for them." These two were then referred to a secular program.

"It's a pretty unrealistic fear" that the faith-based groups are coercing people into religious practice, said Sherman. "So far the word is that everybody's happy."

On the ground

When Virginia received its block-grant federal money in 1997, the state was already in the midst of discussing how the government could partner creatively with non-governmental groups - including faith-based groups.

"Part of the philosophical understanding of Virginia's welfare reform legislation was that government couldn't and shouldn't undertake this effort alone," says Suzanne Puryear, director of the Norfolk Department of Human Services. "Every family needed something a little different."

The department then put out a request for proposals, looking for a good mentoring program to replace one the department had tried but that had met with little success. It seemed to the agency that for people working their way out of the welfare system, the goal was to move beyond governmental intervention, not become further mired in it. "Clearly [mentoring] would work out better if someone else did it," Puryear decided.

There were several proposals submitted, but the one that looked most innovative to the department of human services was from the Norfolk Interfaith Partnership (NIP), a relatively young conglomerate of mainly Catholic and Protestant congregations in the Norfolk area. Together, NIP and the department created the NIP Mentorship Program. Two years later, the program is still running strong. While the department of human services and NIP have found that they have had a lot to learn about each other, they agree that the collaboration has been a successful one.

Puryear says that open communication between her office and NIP member churches helped overcome an early obstacle. People whose welfare check had been reduced because they had not showed up at the department of human services (DHS) offices came to the churches, and the church people were having a hard time refusing to give them money. "There's a fine line between being sympathetic and empathic and being enabling," Puryear said. "We then had to interpret that for the churches."

At the same time, though, Puryear discovered that the church community was able to discover DHS mistakes precisely because welfare recipients felt comfortable approaching the congregation and asking for help. The congregations didn't hesitate to go to the department and ask for a case to be re-examined. All of this is done without church-state nervousness, thanks to charitable choice. "We are in Virginia, land of Thomas Jefferson, so the wall of separation still exists, but the monkey was off our back," said Puryear.

Even though the mentorship program has not been a church-state struggle for either the state agency or NIP, the interfaith partnership is in the process of applying for 501(c)3 status, which would make it an independent nonprofit organization.

Amy Sherman said that she encourages religious groups to pursue 501(c)3 status so that the entire church's budget will not be legally vulnerable in the event of a lawsuit against the social service operation. But she cautions that if an individual congregation is forming a 501(c)3, it should take care that the nonprofit is closely connected to the congregation so that the two entities do not drift apart.

"We wanted to be able to expand what we were doing," said Patrice Schwermer, chair of NIP's mentorship program, "and this gives us a little bit more independence." Under their current contract with the department of human services, Schwermer's group cannot use their funding to take on other issues of concern to the NIP, issues such as domestic violence, homelessness, and intervention for at-risk families.

The "independence" that Schwermer spoke of is a common problem for charitable choice-funded organizations. Because individual congregations often do not have the accounting staff and the internal resources to track the sudden influx of money that they are awarded from the government, independent fiscal agents are often called in to tend to these details. This leaves some congregations feeling disempowered, especially if the goal of charitable choice is to give faith-based groups the resources they need to sustain themselves.

A blending of cultures

The unprecedented interaction between church groups and government agencies, with fiscal agents and nonprofits thrown into the mix, is nothing short of a "blending of...cultures," says Bill Raymond, president of FaithWorks Consulting, a Holland, Michigan-based firm that works as an intermediary among these groups. The problem is that the state and churches have historically been mutually suspicious; at the same time, they recognize that in the current social environment, they must work together.

"The state wants to access faith-based organizations, but they're not quite sure how to do it," Raymond said. For their part, he added, the faith-based groups "really don't understand the state per se." Intermediary organizations can "manage" the new relationships between the two and work toward "transformational change in both directions."

Prior to coming to FaithWorks, Raymond worked with Good Samaritan Ministries, which works with people who opt to get their job training and other welfare services from faith-based organizations. The Michigan-based ministry connects them with congregations that are able to help. There is no shortage of welfare recipients who are volunteering for this service. The more daunting task, Raymond said, is "to find enough volunteers to walk with the families who want to participate." He estimates that less than 5 percent of the congregations he's worked with have even heard of charitable choice. So while there is potential for greatness in the new legislation, lack of information can be a serious obstacle to widespread implementation.

Case in point: Lisa Gray, director of training at Young Community Developers, Inc. (YCD), a nonprofit job referral and placement agency in San Francisco, is involved with a variety of programs that partner nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and religious congregations. "I'm not quite sure what charitable choice is," she said.

But YCD, a 27-year-old organization in the city's seriously impoverished Bayview Hunter's Point neighborhood, recognizes the value of faith-based organizations, and Gray says that her ability to work with church facilities makes her organization's job that much easier. Sherman, the Center for Public Justice researcher, says that it is fairly typical for groups to have a general idea that there are funds available for church-nonprofit-government partnerships, but not specific information about charitable choice.

YCD operates a welfare-to-work program using the facilities at Providence Baptist Church, a neighborhood congregation that had voiced an interest in using their facilities for some kind of social service project. Providence also hosts a training site for the Brownfields Job Training Demonstration Project, a program designed to help residents clean up toxic waste in their neighborhood. Gray says that the availability of government funds and her ability to use church facilities has been of great help. "It has been a benefit to us to be able to just walk in and not worry about the burden of recriminations around the separation of church and state," Gray said.

Sherman says that the next step for charitable choice will be to combat the "vast ignorance" that currently surrounds it with a public education campaign, on both the religious and the governmental sides.

If the full potential of charitable choice is ever to be realized, she says, the government will need to make sure that the complicated regulations governing the funding are readily comprehensible to state and local governmental authorities. At the same time, the faith community should develop "an appropriate code of conduct that will keep us beyond reproach."

Holly J. Lebowitz is a writer and editor who lives near Boston. She is a page producer for and the co-editor of Religion, Race, and Justice in a Changing America (Century Foundation, 1999).

To read more about Charitable Choice, visit these sites:

Congregations' Social Service Activities a report by Mark Chaves
The Growing Impact of Charitable Choice Executive Summary

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