Do faith- based services work?

Oversight: As government has become involved in funding faith-based social programs, little attention is paid to tracking their effectiveness.

August 11, 2002|By Michele Gilman | Michele Gilman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE SUPREME Court's recent decision upholding school vouchers for private and religious education will resonate far beyond the education battleground. The decision also lifts the constitutional cloud that loomed over "charitable choice" programs - government funding for faith-based social services.

As advocates for these programs gear up for expansion, little discussion is taking place as to whether or not these programs work. Yet, plenty of evidence indicates that states and localities are doing far too little to ensure that taxpayer dollars obtain results.

Charitable choice entered the lexicon with the enactment of the welfare reform package in 1996. Before then, local governments regularly contracted with religiously affiliated groups such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities to provide discrete social services to welfare populations.

Under charitable choice, governments can fund churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious groups directly by contracting with them or giving welfare recipients vouchers to redeem at participating churches.

The school voucher decision makes it likely that the use of social service vouchers will expand. Relying on the school voucher case, a U.S. District Court in Wisconsin upheld a faith-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for criminal offenders.

Churches accepting government funds need not tone down their religious nature. They can, for example, keep religious symbolism on the walls and discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring. They can even use their own funds to proselytize people who come in the door for government-funded services.

Under charitable choice, churches and other religious groups provide welfare-related services such as substance abuse treatment, child care, homeless aid, mental health counseling and the like.

President Bush has proposed expanding charitable choice into all federally funded social service programs. His legislative proposals, which foundered this year over constitutional objections, will likely have new momentum when Congress reconvenes.

In addition, Bush has ordered executive agencies to seek ways to expand funding of faith-based providers by eliminating regulatory barriers. In response, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services announced recently that they will spend $50 million to encourage and fund charitable-choice programs under their auspices.

Yet there is no reliable empirical evidence that religiously motivated social service programs work. The anecdotal evidence points in both directions.

For every claimed success story, such as the 85 percent drug rehabilitation success rate of a Christian treatment program called Teen Challenge, comes a horror story, such as alleged child abuse at Roloff Homes, a church-run program for troubled youths in Texas. At the home, "tough love" included tying teen-agers together and forcing them to spend nights digging in sewage-filled pits.

In response, the Texas legislature let expire a law, supported by then-Gov. George W. Bush, that allowed religious child care providers to escape licensing by submitting to being monitored by a group of Christian preachers.

So much for self-regulation.

Little is known about these religious programs, but states and cities are willing to push people toward charitable-choice providers while failing to demand accountability from these inexperienced providers. Part of the problem derives from failure of states to define clear goals and objectives, a complex task in the intensely interpersonal environment of social service delivery. The decentralized and localized nature of social welfare also makes it hard to measure and compare performance.

Internal accountability is patchy at best, as can be seen by problems that have visited such respected charities as the Red Cross and United Way.

Unlike for-profit corporations, which are judged on the measurable yardstick of profitability, nonprofits have more vague goals and a broader set of constituents, each with its demands. Coupled with a lack of state oversight, nonexacting volunteer directors and the reluctance of courts to give charitable beneficiaries and donors the right to sue charities for alleged abuses, little is there to deter these institutions from engaging in risky behavior.

Churches have a greater layer of insulation from oversight. For instance, the Internal Revenue Service does not gather financial data on churches as it does on other nonprofits. In addition, because of First Amendment concerns, legislators and courts have rightfully feared interfering with the internal operations of churches.

Voucher advocates contend that these failings are more than compensated for by the market, which will reward high-performing providers and screen out the less capable. However, these market-based assumptions do not necessarily work when applied to our most vulnerable and disenfranchised populations.

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