Mixed Reactions to Funding of Faith-Based Organizations

February 3, 2001

Source: The Economist

On February 3, 2001, The Economist published an article about reactions to Bush's new faith-based initiative. "To its proponents, this is nothing less than a new way to help the poor." Religious groups have the advantage that "they are prepared to insist that recipients change their behaviour, which is the best way of getting out of poverty...Opponents of the idea focus on a different aspect: it is, they think, an affront to the religious liberties enshrined in the constitution." The article says the basic idea of the plan is "modest and intriguing rather than radical...Religious groups have distributed taxpayer-financed social services for decades. America's largest charity is Catholic Charities, USA. In 1999, two-thirds of its $2.3 billion budget came from the government...Moreover, churches, mosques and so on (henceforth congregations) get some federal money already, from the welfare reform bill of 1996." According to the article, the new proposal rests on three assumptions. The first is that "there is a huge amount of social activity by churches just waiting to be organised properly...America has 300,000 congregations." Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona, however, found that fewer than 10% of congregations had programmes for the persistent problems of poverty. The article interprets this to mean "that small congregations are only ever likely to do what they are doing now: running soup kitchens and giving away old clothes. The hard social work can be done only by big congregations--and they are already doing a lot." A second assumption is that "religious organisations are better at social work because they have a distinctive approach: personal, intensive, focused on lasting solutions. [But] Mr Chaves's research finds that the majority of congregations are engaged in short-term emergency programmes, such as soup kitchens, not the sort of long-term personal efforts they are especially praised for." A third assumption is that "the new initiative is primarily a bottom-up process driven by congregations. [But] Mississippi tried a similar programme at state level, and had to scrap it because so few congregations got involved."