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Joseph M. SullivanApril 09, 2001

In his second week in office, President George W. Bush invited religious leaders to the White House to announce his intention to fulfill his campaign promise to engage faith-based organizations in helping the poor. Federal funds would be made available through the states to churches, synagogues and mosques. He was not alone in proposing this initiative. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, also intended to involve faith-based organizations in assisting low-income people. Ironically, a major architect of funding to religious organizations in order to move Americans from welfare to work, John Ashcroft, was at the same time being hammered by Democrats in the Senate hearings on his confirmation as attorney general. In December 1996 Senator Ashcroft wrote a letter endorsing Section 104 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a provision known as “charitable choice.” States were encouraged to use faith-based organizations to serve the poor and needy. A number of religious groups—including the U.S. bishops’ conference—worked with Senator Ashcroft’s staff to ensure that harmful language did not get into the federal legislation.

The so-called welfare reform legislation was intended “to end welfare as we know it,” according to President Clinton. Previously, government funds could not be given to predominantly religious organizations like churches. The personal responsibility act left the administration of welfare primarily to the states. Now states, if they choose, can engage local religious organizations in providing services to move recipients from welfare to work with the help of federal funds. Under President Bush’s faith-based initiative, churches, synagogues and mosques would not have to become “secular” to participate. They could maintain their religious identity, their symbols, mission and preference for co-religionists as employees. They could not use public monies for religious worship, instruction or proselytizing, nor could they require beneficiaries of their services to participate in religious activities. No such restriction, however, is imposed on those beneficiaries who use vouchers and freely choose a faith-based service provider.

One might wonder what is new about assistance to faith-based congregations. Government has a long history of contracting with Catholic, Jewish and Protestant charitable organizations to provide a wide array of social services—everything from Head Start to social and nutritional services for senior citizens. In New York State the history of public financing to provide for the care of orphans goes back to the middle of the 19th century.

Catholic Charities, Jewish philanthropies and Protestant welfare agencies would not be able to provide most of their social services without contracting with the government. These agencies have a proven track record of quality services to the whole community, irrespective of religious identification or lack of it.

Public officials have sought their assistance in serving the needs of the community, relying on them to provide not only effective but fully accountable services. Sectarian agencies have established separate tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations, publicly chartered by the states in order to provide social services. Church monies are kept separate from public funds. These religious charitable programs serve a community beyond their own faith constituents. They do so with great sensitivity to the cultural and religious differences of those served.

In order to serve the common good and contribute toward building a compassionate society, religious charitable organizations have not engaged in proselytizing. They have not used religious symbols in their facilities and have attempted to accommodate the pluralistic character of the communities they serve. They have tried not to violate the boundaries of separation between church and state.

Some have criticized these publicly funded religious organizations for not remaining true to their own identity and for not using the power of their spiritual resources, which are their most effective means of assisting people to live fully human lives. Practitioners in religious organizations would concur that praying, reading the Scriptures, counseling and motivating people to change behavior for religious reasons could enable them to be more effective in serving people who share their own faith heritage, but these practices were interpreted as being in violation of established boundaries between church and state.

Religious charitable organizations believe their mission is to serve the poor and needy, whatever their religious identity. These agencies have demonstrated a capacity to provide effective services because of highly motivated staffs, who are professionally trained and are able to develop positive relationships with recipients. Recipients are thus motivated to become independent, self-sustaining citizens. In order to help many in need, traditional religious charitable organizations were willing to abide by reasonable limits on their religious activities. They were even willing to endure, at times, the public bureaucracy’s enormous demands for paperwork, its slow decision-making and its slow or inadequate payments, to say nothing of occasionally enduring purely political criticisms.

History clearly demonstrates that nonprofit organizations cannot meet community needs by purely voluntary giving. While some nonprofit organizations pride themselves on accepting no government funds, few of these are serving those in greatest need, and if they do, it is only a small portion. Paradoxically, one significant characteristic of agencies that are truly meeting those in greatest need is the amount of their public funding, because government targets public resources to the most needy.

The intention of the Bush administration to reach out to the poor in society by capitalizing on faith-based institutions that have contact with the poor is a positive initiative. These organizations have spiritual resources to offer, and they are also communities whose faith inspires them to touch the poor, to respect their God-given dignity and to engage volunteers who generously give their time and talents to mentor needy persons.

Often, however, these faith- and community-based organizations lack professional staff and have limited financial resources to hire additional staff or to provide emergency relief and transportation to a clinic or a shelter. They even have trouble paying their utility bills. Religious practices and spirituality are integral to the services they provide—whether it be faith sharing in an A.A. group, drug rehabilitation, Gamblers Anonymous or family support groups. The goal of enabling such faith-based groups to participate in alleviating poverty and helping the troubled is positive. The willingness to find ways not to discriminate against them because they are religious is admirable, but the devil is in the details. Religious congregations ought to be wary of government intrusion on their freedom to practice their faith when assisting the poor. At the same time, the government has a constitutional obligation not to establish or promote a particular religion.

Some Considerations

The problem of poverty is complex. There are no simple solutions or panaceas. The welfare reform legislation was intended to change a culture of dependency that had entrapped many recipients of public assistance. It sent a signal to welfare recipients that public financial aid would be time-limited. Assistance would be given to obtain work. No longer could one become a generational recipient of welfare. The P.R.W.O.R.A. appealed to a majority of the American electorate because they believed that welfare rewarded those who did not work. The reality was much more complicated. Welfare recipients lacked education, skills, child care and work opportunities, and some had personal difficulties.

If one measures success by the number of people no longer receiving public assistance, then the P.R.W.O.R.A. was a startling success. Welfare rolls are down 50 percent. This drop was due not only to changes in welfare rules, but to economic prosperity and abundant work opportunities. Sufficient data is not available, however, to measure the success of moving people from poverty to a living wage. Nationally, Catholic Charities USA has reported that since the initiation of welfare reform, requests for housing, food and emergency relief have substantially increased. And yet, paradoxically, many of these recipients are counted as part of the statistics used to report the so-called success of welfare reform.

Traditional religious charities consider government a partner in addressing social needs. The Bush administration has indicated that it does not intend to have government services replaced, but instead complemented by the efforts of the religious community. The true measurement of the commitment to involve faith-based communities in assisting those in need will be the degree to which new financial resources are made available to them.

Direct service puts a human face on poverty. It urges those who have hands-on experience to probe beyond the immediacy of individual needs to discern the root causes of poverty. Faith-based organizations like Catholic Charities have not only lobbied for resources to assist the needy but have also been major advocates for changes in public policy and administration.

Some claim that nonprofit organizations in receipt of government funds are compromised, that they are unwilling to be critics of the hand that feeds them. While this protestation spotlights a real danger, experience in Catholic Charities challenges this criticism. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted that it was Catholic Charities and the bishops who were the major critics of welfare reform. Although many charities’ budgets swelled with government funds through the 1980’s to provide homeless shelters, soup kitchens and emergency relief, Catholic Charities publicly opposed government cuts in housing, mental health care, Medicaid and food stamps.

But faith-based organizations need to be aware of the danger of politicalization of the services they provide. Politicians—particularly from impoverished communities—often are advocates for the poor and look to faith based community organizations for services, and they frequently cultivate these organizations as a political base for their re-election. This can be divisive and can entice churches, synagogues and mosques to become involved in partisan politics, thus endangering their tax-exempt status.

We wait for the fleshing out of President Bush’s proposal and the identification and allocation of financial resources to expand his faith-based initiative. We can be sure that civil libertarians will be watchdogs ready to examine and challenge the constitutionality of specific proposals or activities. Some extreme adversaries even contest the right of Catholic hospitals and social agencies to receive public funds because they will not violate their own moral tenets.

Unless faith-based organizations and the federal government can collaborate in ways that respect constitutional limits, there is the possibility that even longstanding cooperative efforts will be challenged. If the real goal is to move people out of poverty, and if careful arrangements are made to abide by reasonable limits separating church-state relationships, then faith-based congregations have a real opportunity to help the poor move toward independence. Churches, synagogues and mosques also have the potential to create opportunities to bring the haves and have-nots in contact with one another. Such interfacing may help us to experience the truth that we are more alike than different. This could be the foundation of a more communitarian society.

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