Spotlight Exclusives

September 8, 2009: Religion and Poverty: Government۪s Role in Supporting Faith-based Groups, By Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder and President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance

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Spotlight is hosting an ongoing conversation that asks how and whether religious and faith communities should address the issue of poverty in America and explores the relationship between religion and public policy.

Previous entries in the series have included the following:

“Commonsense solutions to poverty,” by Randall Brandt

“Why the Evangelical Apathy to Governmental Assistance?”

by Dr. Scott Stearman

“Obama۪s Budget Addresses Economic Inequality,” by Ronald J. Sider

“Faith in Action,” by Mark Rodgers

“Let All Who Are Hungry Come and Eat,” By Rabbi Steve Gutow and Dr. H. Eric Schockman

To the distress of many and the pleasant surprise of others, on the campaign trail Barack Obama declared that he would maintain and even expand the federal faith-based initiative. Then, shortly after taking office, President Obama named Joshua DuBois to head his effort, launched the renamed Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and announced a new Advisory Council to provide recommendations on the initiative and other policy priorities. And he issued an executive order revising some elements of the Bush initiative while maintaining its rules and structures.

Why take up this initiative so closely identified with his predecessor and so criticized by many in his own party? Both the President and his director have stated the rationale in these terms: we face a range of pressing problems both domestically and internationally. Problems of this scope cannot be addressed by the federal government alone. An effective response requires “all hands on deck”drawing in faith-based and secular community organizations. The White House faith-based office, and the counterpart centers in major federal agencies, will strengthen and expand this collaborative approach.

Except that, of course, long before President Obama took up this cause, before Bush made it a centerpiece of his administration, and before Charitable Choice legislation was signed into law four times by President Clinton, the federal government had already decided that it could not tackle social problems on its own but must act collaboratively.

To help the homeless, ex-prisoners seeking to find their way back into society, or marginalized communities overseas, the federal government rarely establishes a new office and hires a cadre of civil servants to deliver the services. Almost always, instead, the federal government, or the state and local governments that receive the large majority of federal social-service funds, seeks private groups that know how to do the work and then awards them grants to expand their services. It is a well-established system of collaboration with its own wonkish designations: third-party government or government by proxy.

So, what is it that۪s new? Isn۪t the faith-based initiative just presidential fluff, or a slick new kind of political outreach, or an ingenious new way to shovel government money to favored private groups? These were among the constant accusations made during the Bush administration when the federal government, some two-thirds of the states, and many cities created faith-based initiatives. What was supposed to be different? Why bother?

The Bush faith-based initiative and the Charitable Choice legislation of the Clinton years were motivated by two responses, two convictions. First, while collaboration has been the social services model, in the past it was too limited. Overly restrictive church-state rules and the government۪s inherent bias toward large and familiar partners often left out robustly religious providers, grassroots groups, and organizations that are doing much good but lack an experienced grant writer. A level playing field needed to be created, Bush said, so that the broad range of organizations accomplishing good for their neighbors would have a chance to obtain federal support.

The second conviction is about outcomes: the government۪s response to social need will be more effective if exactly those neglected groups faith-based organizations and neighborhood groups can take on a larger role. This is not to ignore the valuable work of the larger nonprofit organizations, secular and religious, that have long collaborated with government.

The conviction, rather, is that faith-based, community-rooted organizations have particular strengths that are also needed and that may be especially helpful for some people or in some circumstances. Faith-based service providers, including houses of worship, respond to needs beyond office hours and are widely distributed in neighborhoods, are often looked to as trusted providers of guidance as well as services, and typically respond first and at greatest length to disasters. Strengthening their role by expanding their access to government support maximizes our society۪s effective response to need.

Thus the specific federal reforms of the past dozen years: Charitable Choice rules for several federal programs and the similar Equal Treatment regulations for the rest so that faith-based organizations, whether “pervasively sectarian” or “religiously affiliated,” can take part. Clarification that in most federal programs, faith-based groups can participate without giving up their freedom to consider religion when selecting staffa freedom important not only to the evangelical groups that paid new attention to federal funding because of Bush۪s initiative but also to many long-time religious federal partners (in their view, they are doing nothing more than a Democratic Senator does in screening out Republican applicants for staff jobs).

But there have also been many other changes: more accessible information about grant opportunities. An active outreach to groups that may have thought they were ineligible. Programs utilizing larger groups as intermediaries to manage funds and report on behalf of smaller groups. A new emphasis on mentoring to take advantage of the volunteer-rich environment of faith-based organizations. Use of voucher funding, easing the administrative burden on groups while making it possible for some of the government-supported services to include religious activities. And so on.

Thus, not just more of the same kind of collaboration but the growth of something new. The faith-based initiative, stretching back to the 1996 welfare reform law with its Charitable Choice innovation, leveled the playing field in federally funded social service grants. By opening up access to federal funds, and through other initiatives such as the Compassion Capital Fund۪s technical assistance to help smaller groups strengthen their services and administrative capacity, the balance between the federal government and civil society was adjusted.

Instead of simply using private groups to accomplish its own purposes, the federal government will partner with them, acknowledging the good work they do on their own and their distinctive ways of serving the needy. Civil society groups, by their own inspiration and ingenuity, provide essential help. The federal government should support their compassionate service.

Are these the motivations and designs of the Obama Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership Office? To stay on the path of reform, the administration will have to overcome three big challenges.

One: maintain the level playing field rules. The government۪s relations with faith-based organizations, and with civil society groups in general, have been transformed because of the new rules (rules based on the evolution in the Supreme Court۪s First Amendment jurisprudence, from extreme church-state separationism to an equal treatment standard). But strong Democratic voices in Congress, powerful activist groups in the Democratic universe, and Barack Obama himself, as a presidential candidate, have criticized various parts of the new rules.

However, the administration has chosen a sober path, leaving the rules intact while creating a review process to deal with problems that arise. Given that so many of the federal government۪s partners both recent and long-standing ones are religious, it is vital that the administration not backtrack on the clarifications and reforms that have been hard-won over the past dozen years. Just saying that faith-based groups are welcome as partners is worthless if the rules they will be subject to require them to shed or conceal their religious identity and voluntary religious activities.

Two: keep a qualitative concept of effectiveness. The President has rightly stressed that federal social service expenditures have to yield good results. No faith-based or grassroots secular group should get federal funds merely for being religious or rooted in a neighborhood; effectiveness must be the criterion (President Bush said the same thing). It remains a challenge how to evaluate effectiveness in social services, whether the provider is secular or religious, large or small.

There۪s another challenge, too. In the government context, it is easy for effectiveness to be code for “large” and “status quo.” What better way to prove that the taxpayers۪ money is not being wasted than to award grants to big organizations that know the government routine, process a large volume of clients, and can easily generate multiple reports? But these may not be the organizations making the most actual difference in responding to difficult problems. Social problems aren۪t beans; bean-counting isn۪t the best measure of effectiveness. The very appropriate stress on effectiveness has to be kept from disqualifying innovative, “up close and personal” services (to use a John DiIulio phrase).

Three: preserve the stress on civil society. The President wants to be sure that faith-based and neighborhood groups work on high-priority needs, and, through the Advisory Council and other means, can inform the administration۪s policymaking with their experience and insights. Sounds great. But, without care, these impulses could lead to treating civil society groups as “transmission belts” one-way carriers of the government۪s agenda rather than independent actors with their own initiatives and methodologies.

Caring for the needy, reviving distressed communities, mobilizing people for civic actionthe government has a role here, but the prior and larger responsibility belongs to civil society. Secular and religious groups that serve the community need not do so at the government۪s behest or with the government۪s money. They may, and will, have their own views of what they can best do; indeed, they will have their own views of what the government can best do. Partnerships government agencies collaborating with private service providers are a great way to address social problems, but not the only way. And for the relationships to be true partnerships, the federal government would do well to think of its primary role as supporting those private groups rather than enlisting them in its own designs.

Without a doubt, we need “all hands on deck” to respond adequately to social problems. Government has a vital role to play, and to accomplish its responsibilities effectively, it needs to work with private organizations, both faith-based and secular. But responding to social problems is not the responsibility only of government, and its ways of operating are not the only valuable and necessary ways. The federal faith-based initiative will continue to be an innovative and energizing reform effort as long as it is not reduced to a mechanism to expand secular government services.

Stanley Carlson-Thies is founder and President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a Washington, DC-area nonpartisan think tank that focuses on safeguarding the religious identity and faith-shaped standards and sevices of faith-based service organizations. He served with the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives from its inception in February, 2001, until May, 2002

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