News & Views from 465 California Street

The Faith Based Charade

Clint Reilly

Barack Obama announced recently that he would increase the federal government’s commitment to faith-based charity programs begun under George W. Bush.

I hope Obama also subjects America’s social services agenda to a much needed re-examination.

In the 1930s and 40s, President Franklin Roosevelt’s brain trust developed a series of federal programs aimed at providing equal opportunity and access to the American dream. By all accounts, most have been quite successful.

Social Security helped provide a decent retirement. The Federal Housing Administration enabled folks to buy homes. The G.I. Bill sent thousands of servicemen and women to college and was the single biggest factor in creating a thriving U.S. middle class.

Successive Democratic administrations expanded Roosevelt’s New Deal to the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. The definition of freedom grew from freedom to worship and freedom of speech to a fundamental right to a minimum standard of living.

But Ronald Reagan’s presidency ushered in a gradual retrenchment of our economic safety net for the poor and underprivileged.

The trend continued under President Clinton, who cut welfare back dramatically. Clinton co-opted the growing public sentiment that social programs exacerbated poverty instead of curing it.

The consensus developed over the past 30 years holds that the federal government should cease providing direct services to the poor, the sick and the elderly, and instead subcontract social services to nonprofit agencies with greater motivation to provide efficient programs.

In the Bay Area, faith-based providers like Catholic Charities, the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and Episcopal Services are receiving federal, state and local government grants to provide desperately needed care. Thousands of secular nonprofits have also become government contractors.

I was a member of the board of Catholic Charities for 10 years and board president for almost five years. From this vantage point I developed deep respect for the commitment and competence of organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Episcopal Services and the Salvation Army. Many private agencies are also doing heroic work.

But too often these organizations are forced to raise private funds to compensate for under-funded government programs they have been contracted to administer.

Catholic Charities runs more than 30 programs serving over 40,000 people annually. Some of these programs, such as CYO Sports, are funded by Catholic Charities – not the government. The program is open to all faiths, and 18,000 kids participate annually.

It is disconcerting then that Catholic Charities must also raise millions in private donations to subsidize deficits in programs such as Meals on Wheels – a program that Catholic Charities managed for the government until recently.

Similar deficits plague numerous other government programs administered by faith based nonprofits.

This creates a ripple effect throughout the social services sector. In order to cut costs, many nonprofit employees are underpaid and lack adequate benefits like health care and retirement. Government social service workers were once protected by powerful unions such as SEIU and AFSCME. Now, only major agencies are unionized.

In some ways, by contracting out the safety net, government has also politicized the grant-making process, placing it in the hands of elected politicians who treat it as another pork project to be strategically dispensed. As the funds are sprinkled among many small agencies, more money ends up covering administrative expenses that would be better spent on direct services to those in need.

As president, Obama has signaled that he will beef up faith-based nonprofits. Let’s hope that will include a complete reevaluation of our nation’s wavering commitment to provide vital services for the poor, the sick and the aged.

Comments (4)

  • Charade is right. The government shakes dollars out like so much salt among thousands of third-party organizations and hopes that some of it ends up helping people in need. It’s a horrible way to help people.

    I think that one of the biggest problems is that conservatives have been very effective in waging the “big government” attack over the years, which makes people leery of government-run programs. They associate them with graft and bloat regardless of their efficacy. The problem is, whether governments run these programs or private/faith-based organizations do it, the people in need don’t change. They still NEED the services, and they don’t particularly care who gives it to them. So what you end up with is a bunch of politicians who don’t want to be caught during campaign season funding a “bloated, big-government bureaucracy,” yet they take the same amount of money (or more) and shower it indiscriminately on a bunch of third parties.

    Another thing you could have mentioned is the fact that there’s no oversight with these third parties. We’re supposed to assume that these organizations are doing the right thing because they’re charities and “not-for-profit,” yet with the government footing the bill, it’s very easy to have a “nonprofit” that does little but pay for its own existence via salaries, benefits, etc.

    Moreover, when these organizations fail, the money’s gone and they just disappear. If the process were centralized at the federal level and there was a chain of command, the less-effective or corrupt branches would be held responsible for their actions. As it is now, they’re not.

    You’re right on another account too; compensation in the nonprofit world is a travesty. How can we expect educated, energetic young people to go into the business of helping the underprivileged if it means drastic self-sacrifice? Some sacrifice is to be expected, but helping others shouldn’t require you to dramatically curtail your ambitions for a better life yourself.

    Posted by: Tim Van Sickle | July 22nd, 2008 at 5:53 pm

  • All vrery true and disturbing, but what might a solution look like? If we overhaul the system, how do we keep from putting good organizations who do fabulous work out of business when the money dries up?

    Posted by: Lisa Damiano | July 22nd, 2008 at 9:11 pm

  • no. forget the entire “faith-based” idea altogether. more of a separation of church and state, not less. i don’t want my taxes going to groups that I fundamentally disagree with. what if the scientologists get a federal grant to do drug rehab? what if wiccans get $$ to do PTSD counseling? no thanks. i don’t want to pay for it.

    Posted by: Laradar | July 23rd, 2008 at 7:51 am

  • I can still remember the Phrase ” Bleeding Heart Liberal ” driving home the idea that sympathizing with the disenfranchised was some kind of Darwinian no no.
    Only the strong survive the rest fall by the way side as if one is some how weak to even care about the Have Not’s in our society. Appropriating funds to help those in need is frivolous while spending roughly $870,000.000,000.00 Billion on Defense, when you include Homeland Security and War funding, is money well spent. It’s perfectly fine to spend $640.00 for a toilet seat or $436.00 on a hammer but don’t waste my hard earned money on some Faith based social program for people in need.

    Posted by: Bob Snider | July 23rd, 2008 at 4:29 pm

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