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.
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.