This book is divided into two sections. The first section, "focuses on setting the conceptual and methodological background for the study of the efficacy of faith-based social services." The second section provides empirical studies by a variety of scholars in an attempt to determine if faith-based social services are more effective than their secular counterparts.
The passage in 1996 of "Charitable Choice" (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) transformed the relationship between the public sector and faith-based providers of social services. The government can contract with faith-based providers, "so long as taxpayers are not paying for purely religious services…." (7) The editors point to the post-Katrina response as an example of the superior actions of faith-based organizations, but also acknowledge that these agencies often choose their clients, a process known as "creaming," which increases the probability of success.
This book seeks to evaluate the evidence concerning the comparative success of public agencies and those that are faith-based. The editors point out that most of the claims by supporters of both types are ideological or a-priori. It is essential to apply rigorous research methods in order to do the desired evaluation.
So, this book is a beginning in the attempt to determine whether "faith-based social services work effectively and efficiently compared to secular alternatives." (12) The editors emphasize that the studies in the book are directed toward the religious character of organizations, and not of interventions. In other words, the study is limited to the nature of the serving organizations. Another caution: since the organizations themselves, of both types, vary widely in size and experience, differences in outcomes could well result from organizational structures not related to faith.
It might be said that this book, while answering some questions, serves the broader issue by clarifying what the important questions really are, thus laying a foundation for future research.
The first section of the book attempts to delineate the methods and challenges that will lead to a set of acceptable standards against which to measure the effectiveness of faith-based agencies. The authors of each chapter emphasize the dearth of data resulting from the lack of attention paid to religious organizations by social scientists. The authors then offer suggestions and models for data collection and analysis, models which vary according to the authors' unique background and experiences.
The second section of the book moves from the conceptual to the experiential, with authors looking at specific service areas. One author, for example, compares faith-based and secular agencies in Los Angeles county. Another focuses on welfare to work programs. Here again the difficulty of assessing the effectiveness of faith-based agencies as compared to secular ones is obvious, as is the very reall challenge of embarking on a long-neglected field of study.
In their conclusion, the editors repeat that this volume is just a beginning: "we are in the infancy stage of faith-based program evaluation." (287) They also recognize that, although perhaps stronger in some areas (lowering cost; knowing recipients; enhancing competition), faith-based agencies seem to achieve results which are neither better nor worse than those of secular agencies. Again, there is a call for more study, more research, more analysis.
Perhaps the major value of a volume such as this is that very call. Perhaps social scientists will recognize what a complex question the essays here are raising, and will work to enhance the store of data that will enable a thorough and objective assessment of the effectiveness of faith-based social services.