Faith-based social service is a centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s social policy, a subject of national debate, and a growing concern of congregations, and yet there has been little research on its effectiveness. A late March conference at the University of Pennsylvania attended by RW confirmed that while there have been case studies of congregations involved in faith-based social work and glowing reports from ministries on their success rates in comparison to secular agencies, there is a serious lack of quantitative data on the effectiveness of the “faith factor.”
A study released at the conference, which was organized by the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society and the Manhattan Institute, finds that the little research there is (just 25, mainly qualitative, studies) reveals that participation in faith-based interventions is associated with beneficial outcomes.
Researcher Byron Johnson finds that only two of the 25 studies reviewed “concluded that there was no association between faith-based intervention and the desired outcome, and not one study showed a faith-based intervention to be significantly associated with a harmful outcome.” For instance, three studies comparing recidivism among former inmates found that participants in faith-based programs showed lower rates of returning to prison.
Mayors from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. were on hand to testify to the increasingly prominent place that faith-based programs play in urban revitalization. Mayor Martin O’Malley of Baltimore spoke of a youth violence reduction initiative where 37 churches partner with the city to provide volunteer mentors for at-risk youth. Since the program was started there has been a 34 percent drop in shootings in Baltimore, according to O’Malley. In Washington, D.C., there is a clergy-police initiative focusing on youth violence and a mentor program run by the city’s Interfaith Council to help ex-prisoners return to the community.
These and other initiatives were reported by the mayors and clergy with little reference to the national policy of Charitable Choice, welfare reform and the ensuing church-state debate. The University of Pennsylvania’s John Dilulio, formerly head of the White House’s faith-based social service office, explained that there is a growing gap between national politicians and the more pragmatic mayors.
The debate in Washington has “grown increasingly abstract,” not having much to do with the practical realities of solving social problems. He added that “There’s more innovation in the cities than state-wide or national. Being a mayor is a practical job,” and marshaling faith-based resources to solve problems is increasingly common in mayoral leadership. Dilulio added that the relationships and funding flows from Washington to the states, often leaving cities and mayors out of the loop.