Study Suggests Faith-based Effort Used as Partisan Tool

By Ori Nir

Published October 01, 2004, issue of October 01, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — A new study of President Bush’s faith-based initiative has church-state watchdogs warning that the program is being used for partisan gain and is likely to lead to cuts in federal funding to Jewish social service agencies. But the Jewish community’s main network of social service providers is refusing to sound the alarm.

The nonpartisan study, the most comprehensive look so far at White House efforts to increase government aid to religious charities, found that Bush’s initiative has favored small, faith-based social service providers that are first-time applicants for federal funds. The president has frequently stated that religious organizations should not have to set aside their religious mission in order to qualify for social service funding from the government.

Yet the study, published last month by The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a nonpartisan research project that focuses on the role of religious social service providers in America, appears to suggest that politics, not just principle, has played some role in the administration’s efforts.

The study notes that in the few days leading up to the 2002 mid-term elections, the director of the White House faith-based office, Jim Towey, made a 20-city tour to promote his effort. In recent months, the study states, Towey’s office has been holding regional conferences in so-called battleground states that may decide this year’s close presidential election.

Towey’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

“It seems to me that this report provides evidence for those who argued from the beginning that [the faith-based initiative] was in no small amount about political payback to the president’s supporters,” said a senior official with a Jewish organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his organization’s tax-exempt status bars him from appearing to endorse or denounce political candidates.

Some Jewish activists have long warned Jewish social service agencies against embracing the president’s initiative, arguing that they may end up becoming pawns in Bush’s re-election efforts while gaining little by way of new funding. Such warnings were dismissed by Robyn Judelson, the public affairs director of United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of the 189 local Jewish federations in North America. Judelson said she knew of no cuts in the $5 billion to $7 billion in government funding that the federation network receives each year, and that she was unaware of any particular concern over the issue at UJC. “It’s not something that we have dealt with,” Judelson said.

The conflicting Jewish responses to the study reflect a fault line dividing, on the one hand, organizations dedicated to monitoring church-state separation, and, on the other, federation leaders charged with securing government funds for Jewish-sponsored social service agencies. Federation leaders appear hopeful that Bush’s faith-based initiative eventually will mean more money for Jewish-run social service programs. For both sides, the stakes are high: Church-state advocates are facing legislative and legal challenges from the Bush administration on many fronts. Rising federal and state deficits, meanwhile, have federation leaders facing funding cuts just as they begin to prepare for the task of caring for the aging baby-boomer generation.

According to official White House data, the number of grants to first-time faith-based applicants for programs funded by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development — the two government agencies issuing the most social service grants — increased by a third in 2003. The Health Department increased its funding for faith-based groups 41% last year; HUD funding increased by 19%.

Critics say Bush’s faith-based initiative eventually will lead to funding cuts to larger, more established organizations, like local Jewish charitable federations, that have worked hard to remain nonsectarian in order to qualify for government aid under the old rules.

If there is no “new money on the table, there is no way in which you can fund new groups without taking away funds from existing groups,” said Marc Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which lobbies for strict church-state separation. “I can’t help but be concerned at the impact this will have on some of the most effective and proven social service delivery systems: Jewish federation systems, to be sure, but Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services, as well.”

So far, however, established agencies have not seen their funding cut as a result of the White House’s newfound emphasis on fledgling religious groups, said Richard P. Nathan, co-author of the new study.

The report found that the administration has invested tens of millions of dollars in encouraging new faith-based applicants to seek funding for social service programs. To advance that effort, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has set up a network of “mini-offices in 10 government agencies, each with a carefully selected director and staff, empowered to articulate, advance and oversee coordinated efforts to win more financial support for faith-based social services.”

In addition, the White House’s faith-based office has spent tens of millions of dollars on training small religious groups to develop social service programs, and on teaching these groups how to apply for government funding.

The new study states that many government “programs have simplified their applications to enable small faith-based and community-based organizations to participate.”

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