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Mississippi Church/State Partnerships 
in Social Service Delivery Study

Charitable Choice: Faith-Based Poverty Relief 
in the Post–Welfare Era

John P. Bartkowski 
(with Helen A. Regis)

Our larger study explores the prospects for implementing Charitable Choice partnerships (i.e., collaborative church-state social service provision) in America’s post–welfare era. This study examines the poverty relief efforts undertaken in thirty religious congregations located in northeast Mississippi. As a highly churched state with the nation’s leading poverty rate and America’s first church–state welfare program, Mississippi provides an ideal locale in which to examine faith–based approaches to poverty relief. We also explore local religious leaders’ hopes and fears concerning church–state partnerships in social service provision. 

Our research highlights the motivations and stated goals that underlie faith communities’ preferred avenues of relief provision. We also explore the social consequences—positive and negative—associated with each of these relief–provision strategies. 

This research was funded by the Joint Center for Poverty Research; the Rural Health, Safety, and Security Institute; the PricewaterhouseCooper Endowment for the Business of Government; the Louisville Institute; the Southern Rural Development Center (with a grant from the USDA’s Economic Research Service); the Religious Research Association; and the MSU Criss Fund.

John P. Bartkowski is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University. Much of his current research examines the relationship between religious involvement, social inequality, and family life. In addition to the study discussed here, he has conducted research on the Promise Keepers and has explored various dimensions of evangelical family life (i.e., marital relationships, parenting practices). Bartkowski’s forthcoming book, Remaking the Godly Marriage: Gender Negotiation in Evangelical Families, will be published by Rutgers University Press in Summer 2001.

Dr. Bartkowski welcomes inquiries about his research at:

John P. Bartkowski
Department of Sociology, Anthropology, & Social Work
P.O. Drawer C
Mississippi State University
Mississippi State, MS 39762
phone: (662) 325–8621
e-mail: Bartkowski@soc.msstate.edu

Summaries of research findings:

Congregational Strategies for Providing Poverty Relief

Taken together, local faith communities employ several different aid–provision strategies through which they offer relief to vulnerable populations:

Intensive engagement with the poor
Intensive engagement often entails long–term relief to the elderly and imprisoned, respectively, through nursing home and prison ministry programs. Intensive engagement with the poor is also apparent in faith–based food assistance programs that combine food disbursement at an on–site pantry with a regular hot–meal program. Such programs are typically supported by a combination of donations from congregants and other local organizations (e.g., grocery chains, Mississippi Food Network).

Intermittent direct relief to the needy
Intermittent relief entails short–term or one–time aid, including the payment of utility bills, the provision of job referrals, and the seasonal distribution of holiday gift baskets. Church food pantries that have rotational restrictions (e.g., one visit per two months for recipients) provide intermittent direct relief to the hungry. Quite often, intermittent direct relief takes the form of mutual aid where needy congregants facing a short–term crisis are aided by others within the local church.

Parachurch relief efforts
Religious congregations often coordinate their relief programs with those offered by parachurch or interfaith relief organizations. Some churches prefer to provide material relief or volunteer assistance through such organizations because they worry about "door–to–door" aid solicitations. Parachurch relief agencies often retain centralized records concerning relief disbursement and recipient information. Despite the efficiency of this relief strategy, parachurch organizations often serve as a "middle man" or liaison between local congregations and the poor.  Consequently, these agencies can reinforce social distance between the privileged churchgoer and disadvantaged relief recipient.

Distant missions of relief provision
Several churches offer short–term mission trips to disadvantaged populations situated in distant locales. These relief missions can transform the perceptions of privileged congregants by exposing them directly and intensively to the plight of the poor for a period of time. Mission trips vary in destination and duration. They typically range from several days for regional trips to several weeks for international missions. In some cases, these pilgrimages offer the sojourner long–term empathy for the poor and a heightened awareness of poverty. In other instances, the effects of these "pilgrimages of provision" are more short–lived.  Several faith communities utilize a combination of these aid–provision strategies simultaneously, though congregations typically develop pronounced preferences for specific means of relief provision while eschewing other varieties.

Table 1 contains the percentages of sampled religious congregations that provide various types of faith-based aid to disadvantaged persons. (Bear in mind that our non-random sample was selected purposefully to reflect a wide range of local congregations that differ by denomination, size, and racial composition. Consequently, these percentage figures are not generalizable to all congregations in the local area or in Mississippi.)


Percentages of Churches Providing 
Particular Types of Aida


% of All Churches

% of White Churches

% of Black Churches

Rent Assist.

59% (17)

69% (11)

55% (6)

Utilities Assist.

69% (20)

75% (12)

64% (7)

Grocery Assist.

72% (21)

81% (13)

73% (8)


24% (7)

19% (3)

36% (4)

Temp. Shelter

24% (7)

19% (3)

36% (4)

Afford. Housing

7% (2)

6% (1)

0% (0)


52% (15)

50% (8)

55% (6)

Medical Services

28% (8)

25% (4)

27% (3)

Child Care

28% (8)

31% (5)

27% (3)

Hot Meals

17% (5)

19% (3)

18% (2)

Elder Care

24% (7)

25% (4)

27% (3)


35% (10)

31% (5)

36% (4)


55% (16)

50% (8)

64% (7)


28% (8)

13% (2)

55% (6)

After-School Prog.

10% (3)

0% (0)

27% (3)

Other Aid

10% (3)

6% (1)

0% (0)

a: The figure bounded by parentheses within each cell is the number of churches in the numerator used to calculate the corresponding percentage.

b: All churches include white (N=16), Black (N=11), and other (N=2) congregations.

Racial Differences in the Perception of Charitable Choice
Given the fact that our study was conducted soon after the passage of federal welfare reform legislation, we sought to ascertain pastors’ familiarity with Charitable Choice (the policy of faith-based welfare reform). We also aimed to discern each leader’s views concerning the feasibility of state-church relief partnerships in his/her local congregation. If given the chance, did pastors believe that their congregation would participate in such a program? 

Table 2 reveals that the overwhelming majority of pastors in our non-random sample—both black and white—were familiar with Charitable Choice. Consistent with national survey-based research on this topic (see the work of Mark Chaves on this website), African American pastors were much more favorably disposed toward expanding faith-based service programs through Charitable Choice if given the opportunity to do so. (Despite the favorable orientation toward Charitable Choice expressed by such pastors, Mississippi policymakers have recently been criticized for not adhering to the mandates of the program under a new political administration in the state. See state-by-state tracking and evaluation reports on Charitable Choice implementation at the Center for Public Justice: www.cpjustice.org.)


Percentages of Pastors Familiar With and Favorably Disposed Toward Charitable Choice by Racea



Pastors Familiar with Charitable Choice

Pastors Favorably Disposed toward Charitable Choice

White Pastors

79% (11)

14%  (2)

Black Pastors

91%  (10)

73%  (8)

a: Percentages calculated from available interview transcript data. The figure bounded by parentheses within each cell is the number of churches in the numerator used to calculate the corresponding percentage. Because our data are drawn from a non-probability sample, these figures are designed simply to set the context for our analyses of interview transcripts.

Optimism and Pessimism: Pastoral Views of Charitable Choice:
Religious leaders we interviewed express diverse views concerning the prospects of Charitable Choice (collaborative church-state social service provision) implementation. Some pastors were generally optimistic about church–state relief collaborations, while others were more pessimistic about such initiatives. Pastoral affect toward Charitable Choice can be traced to several factors, including:

  • Evaluations of previous relief efforts complemented by specific congregational and denominational dynamics, such that positive prior experiences with aid-giving lend themselves to more favorable views of Charitable Choice;
  • Perceptions about race-ethnicity, the poor, and social inequality, such that pastors who believe that current racial and class-based barriers can be overcome through faith-sponsored relief efforts are more favorably disposed toward Charitable Choice; and
  • Beliefs about the government and its responsibility toward the poor, such that pastors who believe the government must continue to sponsor anti-poverty programs seem generally more willing to support Charitable Choice.

In the end, our report highlights the prospective advantages and disadvantages associated with Charitable Choice implementation. The pastors we interviewed articulate success stories of aid provision and cautionary tales of faith–based relief at a time when "welfare as we have known it" has ended.

Other Reports from this Project

Bartkowski, John P., and Helen A. Regis. 1999. Charitable Choice and the Feasibility of Faith-Based Welfare Reform in Mississippi. http://www.jcpr.org/wp/WPprofile.cfm?ID=98

Bartkowski, John P., and Helen A. Regis. 2001 Religious Civility, Civil Society, and Charitable Choice: Faith–Based Poverty Relief in the Post–Welfare Era. Forthcoming in Faith, Morality, and Civil Society, edited by Dale McConkey and Peter Lawler. Lanham, MD: Lexington.
This forthcoming chapter is available on our site (.pdf file).

Online Resources for Religious Leaders about Charitable Choice

A Guide to Charitable Choice: The Rules of Section 104 of the 1996 Federal Welfare Law Governing State Cooperation with Faith-Based Social-Service Providers. 1997. Washington, DC: The Center for Public Justice, and Annandale, Virginia: The Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom. Order this guide online at: http://www.cpjustice.org/charitablechoice/guide/

Griener, Gretchen M. 2000. Charitable Choice and Welfare Reform: Collaboration between State and Local Governments and Faith-Based Organizations. Issue Notes 4(12). Available online at: http://www.welfareinfo.org/issuenotecharitablechoice.htm

Other Books and Articles about Community Development and Faith–Based Poverty Relief

Chaves, Mark. 1999. "Religious Congregations and Welfare Reform: Who Will Take Advantage of ‘Charitable Choice’?" American Sociological Review. 64: 836-846.

Cnaan, Ram A. 1999. The Newer Deal: Social Work and Religion in Partnership. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Davis, Derek H., and Barry Hankins (eds.). 1999. Welfare Reform and Faith-Based Organizations. Waco: Baylor University J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies.

DiIulio, John D., Jr. 1997. ‘In America’s Cities: The Lord’s Work, the Church, and the "Civil Society" Sector.’ Brookings Review 15: 27-31.

Hart, Stephen. 1996. What Does the Lord Require? How American Christians Think about Economic Justice. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Klein, Joe. 1998. "Can Faith-Based Groups Save Us?" Responsive Community 8: 25-39.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1991. Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1995. Learning to Care: Elementary Kindness in an Age of Indifference. New York: Oxford University Press.




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