Religious charities that provide social services aren’t necessarily more effective than secular agencies, a new study suggests, challenging an underlying assumption of President Bush’s faith-based initiative.

Researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis found that participants in faith-based welfare-to-work programs in two Indiana counties had similar employment rates and earnings to those in non-religious programs, but they worked fewer hours and were less likely to have job benefits that include health insurance.

“Among those who are placed in jobs, wages are not different significantly for clients who received training from faith-based providers compared with those who received training from secular providers,” the study says.

Clients of faith-based providers, however, worked significantly fewer hours—between five and six hours a week less—than those of secular providers. Recipients of faith-based job training were also “significantly and substantially less likely” to be offered health insurance through their work.

“These findings suggest that faith-based providers of job-training services may have less access to full-time job opportunities for their clients compared with secular providers,” the study says.

The study is among the first to examine scientifically what is often viewed as a given in debate over Charitable Choice programs, which make it easier for pervasively sectarian groups to qualify for government contracts—that the religious element makes faith-based charities more effective in helping individuals with basic needs.

“It’s a surprising result,” the study’s principal investigator, IU professor Sheila S. Kennedy, said in the Washington Post. “All the political rhetoric beforehand was, ‘Everybody knows faith-based organizations are better.'”

The researchers urged caution against drawing broad conclusions from their preliminary findings, however. Their study involved only two counties in one state, they said, and other places might not have similar results. They also looked at only one kind of charity, job training and placement. Comparing other types of programs–like drug and alcohol counseling, soup kitchens or day care–might bring different results.

However, the authors do say their findings suggest more research needs to be done before expanding programs that use taxpayer money to recruit and educate faith-based organizations to provide government services.

“One part of our study is an analysis of whether religious organizations are providing better, lower-cost services,” Kennedy told Religion News Service. “If final results are consistent with our preliminary findings, it would appear that some long-held assumptions about the cost-effectiveness of efforts to recruit these organizations are not correct.”

Charitable Choice provisions in 1996 welfare reform grew out of three premises: that the faith community contained significant untapped resources, that unnecessary barriers existed to partnerships between government and faith-based organizations and that faith-based organizations are more effective in than secular organizations in providing services.

The researchers set out to test those assumptions. They say their study may be the first to compare effectiveness of faith-based and secular providers using objective data.

They found that fewer religious groups are participating each year in Indiana’s 1999 welfare-to-work initiative, called FaithWorks. In its first year, 13 percent of statewide contracts were with faith-based providers. In 2001-2002, the percentage dropped to 9 percent. Last year, contracts with faith-based groups fell to 6 percent of all contracts.

Since Indiana’s program began, the state has awarded $4.6 million to 56 religious groups. The state will add an additional $1.1 million in federal money this fall for a series of workshops and other efforts to teach faith-based organizations and others how to apply for the contracts or become involved as volunteers, according to the Indianapolis Star.

The study suggests that many religious organizations continue to be wary of partnering with the government or have difficulty entering the system.

Steve Bonds, a minister at Campbell Chapel AME Zion Church in Haughville, Ind., has been involved with offering GED classes since the mid-1990s. He combined his program with other efforts of community ministers and landed a FaithWorks contract in 2001.

Bonds told the Star that ministers he’s talked to are interested in the money available through contracts but worry about meeting all the requirements. They also wonder about questions like who pays when the church’s heating bill goes up because the building is open longer to handle training classes.

Launching such a program is a leap of faith, the newspaper added, because Indiana’s training initiative doesn’t pay a provider until after the client finds a job. “That’s one of the reasons you’re finding a slow trend of a lot of churches jumping on board,” Bonds said.

One third of Indiana congregations said they are familiar with Charitable Choice and the state’s job-assistance initiative. Fewer than 3 percent of the state’s congregations receive some form of government funding, but 52 percent said they were willing to apply for such support. Survey results indicated that only a few congregations, however—3 percent—currently offer programs that would qualify for the funding, such as job training, education, counseling and childcare.

Congregational leaders also lack knowledge and competence to ensure that their faith-based programs are implemented in ways that are constitutional, the study found. Congregational leaders averaged a score of 66 percent on a questionnaire testing constitutional knowledge. Sixty-seven percent said they did not know that tax dollars cannot be used to pay for religious activities like prayer and Bible study.

The Charitable Choice project is part of a three-year study funded by the Ford Foundation. It is directed by the Indianapolis university’s Center for Urban Policy and the Environment.

The study focuses on three states—Massachusetts, North Carolina and Indiana—but the preliminary findings about effectiveness of programs centered on Lake and Marion counties in Indiana, which include large cities Indianapolis and Gary.

Despite limitations to their research, the authors said, “We do believe our results are plausible counter arguments to the recent political rhetoric.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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