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The challenge for faith-based initiatives

By John J. DiIulio Jr.,
(first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania)
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted on Wed, April 27, 2006

President Bush has repeatedly called supporting religious groups that help the poor “the most important domestic initiative of my presidency.” Last year, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) preached in Boston that nobody “is more likely” to serve the needy than “someone who sees God at work.” Rather than continue to “have a false… debate about the role of faith-based institutions,” she insisted, we should “provide the support that is needed on an ongoing basis.”

Amen, but President Bill Clinton signed the first relevant federal law in 1996, President Bush’s faith-based initiative began in 2001, and Washington still has not come close to providing “the support that is needed on an ongoing basis.” That, however, can finally begin to happen, and soon.

For more than three decades, the Supreme Court has permitted government to partner with sacred places that serve civic purposes so long as no public funds are expended for sectarian worship, instruction or proselytizing. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related laws, houses of worship have the right to take religion into account in hiring (Jewish synagogues need not interview Catholics), plus a limited “ministerial exemption” to do so in their capacity as community-serving nonprofit organizations eligible for public funds.

As documented by Wheaton College political scientist Amy Black in her 2003 book, Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative, the original Bush plan was a go-slow and stay-low effort to study and implement the constitutionally kosher Clinton-era laws, and to thereby “level the playing field” so that qualified faith-based groups that served their own needy neighbors received equal, not special, treatment from grant-making federal agencies.

The Bush initiative’s bipartisan hopes for assisting grassroots religious groups that serve the inner-city poor were symbolized in February 2001 when Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor, John Street, appeared seated next to first lady Laura Bush at the president’s State of the Union speech. In August 2001, in my last public act as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, we released “Unlevel Playing Field,” a report listing bureaucratic barriers facing urban community-serving congregations that might seek federal grants.

But this quiet compassion consensus was shattered when what Black dubs “religious purists” demanded that federal laws be changed forthwith to give religious nonprofits not equal treatment, but special treatment. Their specific demands, embodied in March 2001 in Republican House-drafted legislation, included using public funds to proselytize, and giving religious nonprofits that receive federal tax dollars to deliver social services an absolute right to hire only co-religionists who espouse and practice their preferred religious “beliefs and tenets.”

The public supports equal treatment, not special treatment. Surveys find about three-quarters agreeing that program beneficiaries “should have a variety of options” including religious providers, and that faith-motivated volunteers are “more caring and compassionate.” But three-quarters also oppose public funding for religious programs that “only hire people of the same faith” or require beneficiaries “to take part in religious practices.”

Most religious programs that serve needy children, youth and families are faith-based, not faith-saturated. As reports by Harvard University’s Saguaro Seminar have suggested, their real civic claim to fame is not converting vulnerable people to a particular religion but mobilizing faith-motivated volunteers who serve needy people without regard to religion.

A typical example is urban faith-based welfare-to-work programs. Calvin College political scientist Steven Monsma and others find that the vast majority serve beneficiaries without regard to religion. Only 3 percent hire only co-religionists. Among the minority with government contracts, two-thirds report that public funds empower them to expand services, and only 8 percent report that partnering with government “cut down” on their religious emphases and practices. On average, they serve about 200 clients a year on $90,000 budgets, while secular programs serve about 400 clients a year on $900,000 budgets.

The real sacred places/civic purposes challenge is that, even in big cities such as Philadelphia, where as high as 40 percent of all organizations supplying welfare-to-work services are faith-based, few fath-based programs as yet have a penny in federal or other public support. Most also get little or no major philanthropic support. Much the same story holds for most big cities’ faith-based after-school, housing, crime-prevention and myriad other programs.

In February, a SUNY-Albany Rockefeller Institute report claimed that federal funds going to faith-based groups actually fell between 2002 and 2004. In June 2003, a White House report had asserted that many qualified faith-based organizations were not applying for federal grants because they were “discouraged” by conflicting “federal, state, or local rules and regulations” governing their right to “hire according to [their] religious beliefs.” Then, in 2004, and again last month in reply to the SUNY-Albany study, the White House emphasized instead how many faith-based groups have applied, and how much more federal money is now flowing to them. According to the latest tally, in 2005 about $2.1 billion in federal grants went to faith-based organizations, representing a slight increase over 2004.

Disputes about federal funding to faith-based organizations often sound more theological than empirical because it is not clear to all that the data even exist. Amid the White House’s recent personnel shake-up, initiative office director James Towey announced his resignation, and more numbers flew.

The White House’s arithmetic is right, but so is that of the SUNY-Albany scholars; they are simply counting different things, and the math in each case really doesn’t tell us much. Most federal support for social services is in grants awarded by state and local governments. Few agencies record whether contractors are “faith-based” or not. How much has total public funding for variously defined faith-based organizations increased, and what policies or other factors explain the changes? Nobody honestly knows, but we ought to find out.

In the meantime, stick with what works. The White House’s 2007 budget fact sheet boasts “$40 million for mentoring children of prisoners,” and “$150 million over the last four years for this purpose.” The Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP) program, however, also appears on the White House’s ExpectMore.Gov “Results Not Demonstrated” list because it “has yet to achieve its ambitious goal of establishing 100,000 matches…only 14,000 matches have been made to date.”

True, but a closer look finds that Amachi, a mentoring program celebrated publicly and repeatedly by President Bush himself, delivered the vast majority of all MCP matches. Through June 30, the MCP made 231 grants. Of the 100 most successful grantees, 66 were Amachi-affiliated. They made 7,049 matches, or about 107 per grant. Had all 231 grantees performed at that average, the MCP would have made about 25,000 matches by July 2005, or more than twice the January 2006 tally.

Director Towey is scheduled to be in Philadelphia today to celebrate the Amachi program’s fifth anniversary. I helped to hatch the idea in the late 1990s, but Amachi’s motto, “People of Faith Serving Children of Promise,” has been embodied, and its success has been achieved, through its much-respected leader, former two-term Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, the Rev. W. Wilson Goode, and its spectacular, century-old secular nonprofit partner, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

President Clinton tried to put 100,000 cops in place, but Sen. Clinton could help President Bush, in partnership with Rev. Goode and Big Brothers, to reach the 100,000 mentors milestone. A billion dollars a year would be needed to sustain it. Under the original “compassion fund” plan, it should come half from Washington, a quarter from private donors, and a quarter from local governments.

Towey, a devout Catholic who previously worked for Mother Teresa, achieved much good, most notably by improving access to accurate and understandable information about federal grant-making. His successor, working closely with Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the Corporation for National Service and former two-term Republican mayor of Indianapolis, should forge meaningful ties with mayors’ offices that are interested in flooding federal agencies with grant applications from qualified local faith-based groups. That would yield increases that nobody could credibly dispute, and model how to build effective service-delivery partnerships in cities from coast to coast.

Given constitutional fidelity, administrative true grit, and adequate funding, faith-based initiatives can do what leaders in both parties inside and beyond the beltway sincerely want them to do, namely, measurably help millions in need. Pray.

This essay is adapted from his April 6 lecture for the 12th annual Aaron Wildavsky Forum for Public Policy at the University of California at Berkley.

Used with permission of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved.