Here’s a dirty little secret: the real purpose of transferring social services to faith-based organizations is not to strengthen those services through the power of belief but to stem the rising tide of unionization at nonprofits. Successful organizing drives have taken place at universities, at nonprofit hospitals and at large arts groups such as orchestras and museums. Social service agencies can’t be far behind, and they’re not.
Some workers at the Union Settlement Association in New York are represented by the Service Employees’ International Union while others bargain through AFSCME. The National Organization of Legal Services workers, a UAW affiliate, speaks for lawyers, paralegals and support staff at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. But most of the smaller agencies providing human services–the battered women’s shelters, the drug treatment centers, the rape hotlines, the work-readiness programs–are without such representation, and their employees’ pay is concomitantly low.
As union organizers point out, the service economy in general and nonprofit organizations in particular are their next natural target. You can’t move the Art Institute to the North American Free Trade Zone to cut down on labor costs. Northwestern University Hospital can’t perform its function in Singapore. The “new economy” consists not only of burger-flippers and personal shoppers but of social workers and drug counselors and pre-school teachers. Both groups are poorly paid, but many of the latter are highly educated and more than abstractly concerned with justice, and the past several years have demonstrated that they’re not willing to work indefinitely for a fraction of their economic worth. For-profit hospitals, schools and child-care facilities have many drawbacks, but they do create a competitive market for the labor of social service workers.
In any case, many such workers come from the for-profit world, and know exactly what they’re worth. The only meaningful difference between a corporation’s V.P./Marketing and a nonprofit’s Director of Development is that the latter earns less. A person who can make $100,000 a year in the for-profit world and accepts a nonprofit job for half that is subsidizing his–or, more often, her–new employer to the tune of $50,000 annually. This is likely to be more than any member of the Board of Directors contributes, and may be more than all of them contribute. It’s also likely to be more than any foundation’s annual grant to the group. Examine the actual operations of human service nonprofits and you’ll find that their major source of revenue (beside government contracts) is these foregone wages, meaning that people with the fewest resources are the ones making the biggest donations.
Of course, as Board members and foundation staff are fond of remarking, “No one goes into nonprofits to get rich.” But lawyers, MBAs and computer professionals who go to work for charities–and their numbers are increasing–are not going to sacrifice their children’s college education for the privilege of putting a caring face on the affluent society from which they came.
Why is this suddenly an issue? Because for years the nonprofit sector subsisted on the unpaid labor of women. Opportunities for women in the paid labor force mean two things to nonprofits: that they need more staff to cover tasks previously done by volunteers, and that they’re less able to attract staff with traditional salaries, long depressed by volunteers’ availability. As the nurse shortage of the early 1980s showed, though, there’s a simple way to combat scarcity of personnel: pay better.
And if nonprofits won’t volunteer this solution, because their funders insist that doing good work should be its own reward, their workers will thrust it upon them. SEIU tried and failed several years ago to make the Chicago Children’s Museum a union shop–but before the organizing drive was over, the employees had most of what they’d demanded. Nonprofits have gotten by without financial capital by consuming human capital instead, but those days are over.
Unless . . . unless in funding social services, the government gives preference to agencies run by religious organizations. Sisters of Mercy won’t go on strike for higher wages. Style an agency a “ministry,” and people will be discouraged from asking to be paid for making it operate.
Why have the unions, so vocal in protesting workfare, failed to notice that they’re the main target of “charitable choice”? Probably for the same reason that no one noticed until after the election that George W. Bush was the envelope Dick Cheney came in: because this team’s media strategy is to draw attention to things that don’t matter (Bush was a C student!) to conceal the ones that do.
It matters, of course, that faith-based social services may be discriminatory, and that they will further entangle church and state–but it’s possible these objections can be answered. The objection that can’t be is the one the administration hopes is never raised: that the program’s real goal is to make sure still more working people don’t get paid very much. First replace direct services, provided largely by unionized government employees, with service through private nonprofits, largely union-free. Then, when even nonprofit employees have had enough, shift the services again, this time to people still less likely to care about pay, or even bound by religious vows not to. It’s just a delicious irony that doing so requires thwarting the operation of the free market Republicans claim to venerate.
“Charitable choice” pretends to be a method of poverty reduction, but it’s really a method of poverty creation, making sure that public-spirited people who do more than a full day’s work continue to get less than a full day’s pay. The real choice is between paying social service workers decent wages and abandoning meaningful services, and it’s clear which the Bush administration prefers.