Charitable Choice: Welfare Money and the First Amendment
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Martha Singleton-Toombs of Fort Worth, Texas, describes herself as retired, but in reality she began a second career in 1993, the year she turned 59. She had just given up work as a nursing administrator, when she had a vision.
"The Lord placed this in my heart to do this for the welfare mothers," she said.
A year after Toombs saw her vision, she started adult literacy classes at her church, Pilgrim Valley Missionary Baptist. Today, she runs A-PREP of Tarrant County, an adult education center located in a former cellular phone store on Fort Worth's depressed southeast side. Toombs' pastor, the Rev. Weldon Daniels, chairs A-Prep's board of directors.
Women facing the transition from welfare to work can walk or ride the bus to A-Prep from one of five, federally subsidized apartment complexes just down the road. Inside, they can take six-week computer classes, study for their GED and get help finding a job.
No religious icons adorn the walls. Instead, A-Prep displays the newsletters its students produce in their computer classes, with articles on topics such as the Y2K computer bug. A-Prep's GED instructors teach the curriculum of the local school district.
"I let them know who I am and I let them know this is not my doing, it's God's doing," Toombs said. Other than that, students at the center say, she never discusses religion with them.
Today, under a statewide program called Charitable Choice, the Tarrant County arm of the Texas Workforce Commission supports three religious organizations, including A-Prep, that help single mothers move from welfare to work. Charitable Choice takes its name from a provision of the federal welfare law that prohibits states from discriminating against churches and other religious groups when doling out welfare money.
Of the three Tarrant County programs, Family Pathfinders offers welfare recipients the most exposure to religion. Pathfinder teams, sponsored by area churches, advise single mothers during their last months on welfare and their first months in a job. Teams often bring families to church events, but the rules of the program require all parties to respect each other's beliefs.
In addition, the Tarrant workforce board supports local United Community Centers, which are also funded by the United Methodist Church. UCC has long used government money to run food pantries, before- and after-school programs, gang prevention programs and services for the elderly.
With its new welfare grant, UCC now sends caseworkers into the county's poorest neighborhoods to talk to women on welfare and bring them in for advice on how to get and keep a job.
"We don't preach John Wesley to people. We tell them it's important to develop their spirituality. You've got to nurture the spiritual side of your life as well as the other aspects of your life," said UCC President Floyd Davis.
"They hope they bring people to God through their actions, not through their words," said Debby Kratky of the local Workforce Development Board, which chooses the programs in Tarrant County that receive federal welfare dollars.
"It's Faith in Action. We're not going to support any program that does not move these people toward self-sufficiency."
Faith in Action is the name of a 1996 report from the governor's office that launched Charitable Choice in Texas. Based on the report's recommendations, Governor George W. Bush pushed the legislature and the state's social service agencies to review their contracting and licensing rules and make them more friendly to religious groups.
Bush had been angered when state regulators threatened to revoke the license of a drug treatment program called Teen Challenge. Teen Challenge runs residential facilities and support groups that, as its Web site explains, "apply the truths of Scripture to the struggles that we face in order that we may grow in our relationship to God."
Teen Challenge does not take any government money, but it was required to obtain a license.
Bush, who says his renewed faith helped him overcome a cumbersome drinking habit, points to groups like Teen Challenge as programs the government should nurture.
"The goal of these faith-based groups is not just to provide services, it is to change lives. And lives are changed," Bush said in an Indianapolis speech in July.
Programs in Texas like Teen Challenge can now request an exemption from state licensing laws. Church-run child care centers can seek alternative accreditation. And, recently, the state began awarding welfare grants to religious groups.
In Fort Worth, Kratky opted to support well-established organizations like A-Prep that already had other sources of funding, prime locations in distressed neighborhoods and a record of success.
"It's our responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars to make sure it's spent wisely, to make sure you have good outcomes for everybody," Kratky said.
Toombs can quickly reel off a long list of A-Prep's recent accomplishments. She understands that, when taxpayers are footing the bill, she must be accountable.
The reality is most religious organizations that do take government funds are more like A-Prep than Teen Challenge. They have agreed to operate under a heightened level of scrutiny and in a manner that does not conflict with the Supreme Court's prohibition on government support for "pervasively sectarian" institutions.
"We want those groups who are robust in their faith to receive the message," said Don Willett, an advisor to Bush on Charitable Choice. "We certainly want them to step forward."
Still, many in the religious community are reluctant to test the waters. The Baptist General Convention of Texas, which counts 2.5 million church members, advises its churches to be cautious.
"Government control... I don't know of any cases where it didn't follow government money," said Weston Ware of the Texas Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission. "The people who are giving the money can always stop giving the money; that is always a threat."
"We don't believe public money should be used for religious propaganda or to advance the purposes of any religious group," Ware said. "There is a fear that various conservative religious groups want to blot out the line between church and state."
Supporters of Charitable Choice include the politically conservative organizations, the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State strongly opposes Charitable Choice and says it is considering legal action.
Willett says Bush is prepared to fight any challenges that may arise in Texas. Ultimately, as outlined in the Faith in Action report, Bush would like the state to employ a voucher system, so that welfare recipients chose the programs, rather than the state.
For some, certainly, faith can be a powerful motivator. "I believe it's easier to place my faith in God than in any human being," said Ruthie Garrison, a single mother who moved off welfare last year with the help of the Tarrant County Pathfinders program. "To base your hope in a Supreme Being... that's an encouragement in itself."
But little evidence exists to show that most Bible-based social programs are necessarily more efficient or effective than the government's, as some Charitable Choice proponents claim. And, while Bush is encouraging religious organizations to bring what Willett calls a "muscular moral challenge" to the delivery of welfare services, it is not known how many recipients would chose those programs.
Garrison was the only recent welfare recipient interviewed for this story who said she attends church regularly. Other mothers trying to move from welfare to work in Fort Worth say they are inspired right now by much more worldly goals: finding child care, reliable transportation or job training.
In Texas, many supporters of Charitable Choice are looking beyond the First Amendment issues and are concentrating on meeting those immediate needs.
Diane Stewart, Executive Director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, lobbies in Austin for funding for local non-profits. She says she does not care if those groups are religious or not. "The state has had some experiences that are going to make it wary of going too far in that direction," she said.