President George W. Bush and others who want to fund "faith-based" social services frequently argue that religious groups do a better job than their secular or government counterparts. They've made the argument so often that it is usually accepted without question in the media.
Where's the evidence to back up the claim? Surprisingly, there isn't any.
Even Stephen Goldsmith, a top Bush advisor on "faith-based" approaches, admits that the evidence is wanting. During a Jan. 29 interview with National Public Radio, Goldsmith was asked directly if there is "hard proof" that religious efforts are more effective. He replied, "No."
Nevertheless, the anecdotes keep coming. In the area of alcohol and drug addiction, for example, it has been widely reported that Teen Challenge, a recovery program based on fundamentalist Christianity, has a success rate of 80 percent. This figure has been widely reported in print and electronic media and stated in the halls of Congress, always without substantiation. Most recently, it appeared in an opinion column by TV preacher Pat Robertson that ran in USA Today March 5.
An 80 percent success rate for helping alcoholics and drug addicts get sober would be impressive if it were true but it may not be. Last year, Dan Cain, an expert in substance abuse issues, questioned Teen Challenge's claims in a letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Cain, director of a traditional recovery program north of Minneapolis called RS Eden, pointed out that Teen Challenge's figures are deceptive because 65 percent of those who enter the program do not finish it. Including the drop-outs gives Teen Challenge a much-more modest 25 percent success rate.
Teen Challenge counters that it has studies proving its effectiveness. But one of those studies was conducted by the University of Tennessee more than 15 years ago and involved six people a statistical sample too small to be of value.
President Bush and his allies also contend that "faith-based" programs generally work better and cost less than public, secular ones. Again, the evidence is lacking.
Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis, claims to have used privatization schemes, including a strong "faith-based" approach, to revitalize that city. Goldsmith asserts that his model can work on a national level.
But two researchers have recently challenged Goldsmith's claims of spectacular success. In a their recent book, To Market, To Market: Reinventing Indianapolis, Ingrid Ritchie and Sheila Suess Kennedy charge that under the guise of "compassionate conservatism" Goldsmith "attempted to gut regulations that protect poor people from slumlords and that his 'marketized' parks priced poor families out of city swimming pools and golf courses."
Ritchie and Kennedy also assert, "The facts show Goldsmith left Indianapolis with more debt, more crime, more confusion and more civic polarization."
It's also important to note that "faith-based" organizations are not immune from the same type of infighting, cost overruns and corruption that sometimes afflict government projects. One of Ritchie and Kennedy's key findings is that without significant oversight, privatization can end up negating any hoped-for savings.