Too Much On Faith?

by Megan McLaughlin

President Bush's faith-based initiative has generated a lively debate about the role of religious institutions in providing services to the poor. But faith-based programs are not new. A significant number of not-for-profit health and welfare organizations evolved from religious organizations and many of the current child care programs, youth programs, nursing homes, among others, are faith-based. The revitalization of many of New York City's poorest neighborhoods - Central Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant and St. Albans - are testament to the significant impact of faith-based programs doing community building with public dollars. The question is: what is new?

The difference is in both context and scope. Charitable choice altered the nature of the relationship between government and churches. President Bush's initiative provides resources to deepen the Involvement . [See Gotham Gazette's recent Issue of the Week]

Charitable choice was promulgated by then Senator John Ashcroft in 1995 and was an important feature of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (Welfare reform). It encourages states to engage faith-based organizations to provide welfare services with federal dollars and obligates government to respect the religious identity and mission of faith-based organizations that accept government money to help the poor. The Act provides several safeguards, protecting religious organizations' freedom of expression. Specifically, religious organizations may not be required to alter their internal governance or remove their religious symbols.

Charitable choice evolved as part of the reform that dismantled the safety net, devolving responsibility for the poor from federal to state and local governments and to non- government institutions. Its stated objective is to move people from welfare to work and faith-based organizations are to do that by "transforming shattered lives."

President Bush's current executive order on faith-based initiatives introduces some special considerations and greatly expands the reach of charitable choice. The new office is intended to create an infrastructure to push through charitable choice and will involve the efforts of various government departments including the offices of The Attorney General, the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Millions of dollars of federal aid, plus over one billion dollars from a special fund to finance the initiative, represents essential resources for many faith-based organizations struggling to provide services that are desperately needed in their communities. Nonetheless, this public policy shift requires analysis to determine both short and long- term consequences for those who will be affected the most.

There seems to be a particular effort to involve Black churches in the initiative. And that is appropriate since a disproportionate percentage of the poor is Black. Furthermore, the Black church has a history of providing the array of services that the Black community needs. But their mission also has included advocacy and the question is whether this effort to infuse public dollars will reduce their involvement in social movements and in public advocacy. Experience suggests that those who rely on public dollars for their mainstay cannot "bite the hands that feed them." Already, there are many restrictions that limit the voice of not-for-profits. The Black community, more than any other, needs the voice and influence of the Black church, which has spawned the majority of Black institutions and led most of the struggles for Black liberation and civil rights.

It is necessary to make clear what faith-based efforts can do and what they cannot do. Most faith-based organizations do not have the fiscal, administrative, and programmatic mechanisms that are requisites especially in an atmosphere that emphasizes results. Technical assistance can address some of these problems but not in the short run. Additionally, there is a need to protect church assets that will be threatened if public dollars are intermingled with "church funds." Auditing and accountability necessarily accompany public funds.

Presently, private and publicly funded organizations, including faith-based, feed the hungry and provide shelter, but the need keeps growing. A recent report stated that shelters in New York City now have the highest census they have had in years. The reality is that only public policies can stem the tide. Many people work fulltime and are still poor. They need higher wages, affordable housing and other critical supports such as health care and childcare. Many parents who are responsible churchgoers find their families trapped in neighborhoods that are resource-starved. A moral society must address these issues on a societal level while it advances personal responsibility and community based efforts.

Like the social service strategy, faith-based alone cannot solve the pressing issues of poverty and its attending consequences. Services are necessary but they are not sufficient, regardless of who provides these services.

Megan McLaughlin is Executive Director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, an umbrella group providing capacity-building for more than 240 human service organizations and churches in New York City.


Check out the Feature Archives!