Faith-Based Welfare Reform: A Constitutional Crises
The door to President Bush’s faith-based social welfare agenda
was opened by the “charitable choice” clause.
This clause came attached to key welfare legislation enacted during
the Clinton administration. Clinton
declared that government welfare, as defined at the time, was to end.
The subsequent legislation was the product of a bipartisan reform
movement that crystallized in the Personal
Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996.
It replaced the long standing Aid to Families with Dependent
Children (AFDC) program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
(TANF) program. The TANF
legislation marked a revolution in public welfare because it put a
five-year limit on welfare assistance and imposed strict work requirements
on the recipients. The
explicit economic goal was to reduce the number of people on welfare and
thereby cut the costs of sustaining a government funded welfare system.
This was to be accomplished not only by limiting how long anyone
could stay on welfare, but also by emphasizing job search and remedial
education. These latter
elements were aimed at getting the recipients successfully installed in
the wage-earning mainstream.
the way, however, PRWORA got tangled up with a political agenda of
disenfranchising the government welfare bureaucracy altogether.
The strategy was to contract actual administration of the services
out to private sector organizations. The
implicit goal was to move toward reducing civil service workforce
involvement to a mere oversight function.
This is what sparked the PRWORA and charitable-choice entanglement.
The defining political crucible was the ensuing argument that if
secular (non-religious) human service organizations could bid for
administrative rights, then existing “faith-based” charity
organizations should be allowed to bid as well.
At that point, the question really should have been, “why involve
any private-sector organization, secular or otherwise in the
administration of government funded welfare?”
The political incentives versus potential economic and cultural
inequities involve an issue more complex then might be readily apparent.
For this reason, the crucial factors underlying the politics of
private sector involvement receive close attention as this commentary
progresses. The intention is
to demonstrate just how bad a legislative piece of work the
charitable-choice clause really is. Further,
it will show how dangerous it is to both the solvency of our Constitution
and to our civil rights as citizens and taxpayers.
and “Charitable Choice”
of the selling points for allowing religious charities to participate in
PRWORA and TANF was the claim that it gave the welfare recipients a
“charitable choice” about who would administer their entitlements.
However, it was never made clear just how to accomplish this on a
location-by-location basis. First, creating an equal availability of
secular and faith-based providers in every affected community is virtually
impossible. Even if
alternative provider organizations were available, the practical reality
of any kind of choice would be diminished due to the simple problem of
achieving neighborhood proximity to one or the other.
Even with this problem set aside, a real choice presupposes that
all recipients are informed about their options.
They could just as well end up directed to the nearest provider, or
to the one with the lowest caseload, or for some other reason amounting to
a biased referral. Even with
this, there is the more pressing matter of the specific religious
affiliation of the faith-based providers.
With the great diversity of religious persuasions in America, it is
unrealistic to expect that a truly impartial system of faith based choice
could ever materialize. This
observation brings the discussion around to one of the hardest points of
“charitable choice” clause was justified by the further stipulation
that participating faith-based charities would not discriminate in their
employee hiring practices. Nor
would they use their status as government-endorsed and funded providers to
proselytize or otherwise exploit the situation in the service of their
religion. To the contrary in
fact, the “charitable choice” clause did relax some of the existing
restrictions against proselytization and discriminatory hiring.
This was to allow the charities to “retain their religious
character”. As such,
charitable choice was a corrupt idea from its inception.
Where exactly was the legal line to be drawn about discriminatory
hiring and proselytization, and how was it to be enforced?
To make the situation even graver, Bush’s executive orders and
legislative initiatives aimed to further shield the faith-based
organizations from anti-discrimination laws!
This agenda should be very troubling because if faith-based
providers can discriminate in their internal hiring practices, then little
doubt can exist that the welfare recipients will suffer discrimination as
Bush clearly intended to eliminate as many existing “barriers”
to faith-based eligibility as he possibly could.
Included among the target barriers is any institutional mindset
within government that would bias the selection processes in favor of
secular organizations (source).
This is tantamount to directing the government to brush aside the
Constitution to actually favor faith-based welfare providers (note).
Unquestionably, the Christian charities would be the predominant
beneficiaries of the legislation. Although
theoretically, it would seem that the same competitive rights must be open
to all organizations irrespective of religious persuasion, denomination,
or sect. The implied equality
of opportunity itself is a serious sticking point both inside and outside
the right-wing Christian camps.
Notably, the only religious charities mentioned by the
administration as potentially eligible were Christian, Jewish, and to a
more token extent Islamic organizations.
Thus the initiative was corrupt from the beginning because of a
built-in favoritism toward the Abrahamic religions.
This should immediately raise concerns about the eligibility of
other competitors from the Hindu, Buddhist, Asian American, Native
American, and Neo-pantheistic religious persuasions for instance.
At least in theory, organizations like the Ku Klux Clan, Black
Muslims, and Church of Scientology should have been eligible to compete (source).
This puts the government in the extremely awkward and
constitutionally invalid role of arbitrating which “faith-based”
organizations are worthy of endorsement.
The likely political reality is that few if any organizations
outside of the Judeo-Christian linage would ever receive more than token
consideration. Consequently, a
deluge of lawsuits claiming biased selection policies are justifiably
certain to follow. For these
reasons alone, both the previous “charitable choice” clause and the
present “faith-based” legislation is constitutionally invalid and
politically irresponsible. These
are only the most visible factors that make Bush’s welfare reform game