When thousands of men and women working to overcome drug and alcohol addiction at Teen Challenge centers across the United States bow their heads to give thanks for their daily bread this week, they'll have an additional reason to be thankful: A reversal of Bush administration policy means residents of the Christian-based treatment program won't be forced to choose between food stamps and faith-based recovery.
Two weeks ago WORLD reported that Department of Agriculture (USDA) field offices in Massachusetts and Texas had told Teen Challenge that program residents could no longer receive food stamps because Teen Challenge centers are not licensed by their respective states.
The department cut off food stamps from Teen Challenge residents in Oregon and Florida as well. Though Teen Challenge maintains tough internal standards and meets all local safety and health requirements, the centers refuse to pursue state licensure, saying it would force them to trade their faith-based model for a "disease model" that denies addiction is a manifestation of sin.
USDA rejected Teen Challenge's appeals of the stamps revocation, cutting off the food stamps, and cutting by half most centers' food budgets. After WORLD exposed the practice, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt declared residents of faith-based recovery programs eligible for participation in the federal food stamp program, and sent an Aug. 26 letter to all 50 governors reversing the previous policy.
The letter clearly states that federal food stamp regulations for faith-based recovery programs "[do] not necessitate State licensure." It stipulates to governors that state agencies may not deny food stamps to faith-based recovery groups because they lack state licenses: "Individuals seeking to recover from their addictions should not be forced to choose between accessing effective treatment programs and retaining their eligibility for food stamps."
Teen Challenge operates 185 drug and alcohol residential recovery centers across the country, serving some 5,000 residents with a program that's Christ-centered and work-driven. More than 2,000 men and women graduate annually from the one-year program, and Teen Challenge boasts success rates of 67 percent to 85 percent among program graduates.
While Teen Challenge receives no direct government funding, and most residents are unable to pay the $3,000 monthly program costs, the faith-based organization has found some financial relief through the food stamp program for more than 30 years. Nearly half of Teen Challenge residents are eligible for food stamps, and residents typically give the stamps to Teen Challenge staff, who pool them to buy food for program residents.
The White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives had pressed for the change, and Jim Towey, director of the office, told WORLD he's glad that faith-based groups have been vindicated: "We're pleased that it's . . . not the policy of this administration that an addict should have to choose between treatment and food."
Bob Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (NCNE), who has been a leading advocate for Teen Challenge in the food stamp controversy, said he was likewise pleased with the administration's "significant first step," and added that more work lies ahead.
While USDA promised state governors that its officials would follow up with relevant agencies in each state to "notify them of this policy clarification and issue guidance as to its implementation," Mr. Woodson said he will press for a coalition of faith-based leaders and government officials to work together on accountability for food stamp distribution: "It's important that this change be monitored aggressively."
NCNE official Heather Humphries says the USDA's actions could have a widespread impact for faith-based recovery organizations beyond Teen Challenge. "So many faith-based programs had given up and not even applied for food stamps over the last 10 years," Ms. Humphries said. "But now they can arm themselves with the USDA's letter and apply . . . this could really broaden the benefits to faith-based groups."