Mark Chaves: Does anyone remember the faith-based initiative?

The initiative increased congregations’ interest in cooperating with government on social service. But actual congregational partnering with government has not increased at all.

A brief recap: Beginning with welfare reform in the late 1990’s but picking up speed when George W. Bush became President in 2001, government officials at every level looked for ways to increase congregations’ and other religious organizations’ involvement in social services, and they tried to increase the flow of government money to congregations and other religious organizations. The media paid a lot of attention to these efforts, reporting mainly on the debates they provoked. The debate produced more heat than light, however, not least because people overlooked the fact that religious organizations, including congregations, long have played a role in our social welfare system, and they long have received public money to support their human services programs. Still, the faith-based initiative tried to enhance that role and alter its character in certain respects.

What effect did the faith-based initiative have on congregations?

Very little. National Congregations Study data from 1998 and 2006-07 show that neither the overall percent of congregations that report social services (82% in 2006), nor the percent with a staff person devoting at least quarter-time to social services (11%), nor the percent who received government funding (4%), have increased since 1998. Not even the level of collaboration (whether or not money is involved) between congregations and government or secular nonprofit organizations increased. In both 1998 and 2006-07, about 6% of the social services programs congregations reported were done in collaboration with government, and about 20% were done in collaboration with a secular nonprofit agency.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether these numbers represent a glass half-full (“look how much congregations contribute to our social welfare system!”) or half-empty (“congregations should do more!”). But the amount of water in the glass has not changed since 1998.

Despite this stability in congregational social service activity, the graph above shows that congregational interest in social services increased since 1998. The number of congregations that would like to apply for government money to support social service programs increased from 39% in 1998 to 47% in 2006-07. The number of congregations who hosted a speaker from a social service organization increased from 22 to 31%. And the number who recently conducted a community needs assessment jumped from 37 to 48%. These are impressive increases, probably representing an increased level of congregational interest in social services generated by media attention to faith-based initiatives and by the mistaken belief by some congregational leaders that there would be government money specifically set aside to support congregations’ human service activities.

There are nuances. For example, the data hint at the possibility that the faith-based initiative may have led some congregations who already were involved in social services to intensify their effort by devoting slightly more staff and volunteer time to these activities. But these hints are too faint to alter the basic conclusion: the faith-based initiative increased congregations’ interest in social service programs, but it did not change their behavior.

Why the faith-based initiative accomplished so little is a subject for another day.