Bush Plan Stirs Excitement, Anxiety


Amid all the rhetoric about separation of church and state, one of the most crucial battles brewing over President George Bush's faith-based initiative involves a detail that is getting little public attention: training and credentials.

Will staff at faith-based agencies be exempt from training and credential requirements to provide services such as drug abuse counseling? Some members of Congress are pushing for such exemptions in legislation introduced last month, while foes, including nonprofits and some faith-based groups, are pushing back.

The fine print of faith-based legislation or regulatory changes could be crucial to how the initiative affects youth-serving agencies. "The devil is in the details," says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch. "Youth-serving organizations should be extremely wary and look with great scrutiny at what is being proposed."

"This is going to be a massive new wave of funding going to faith-based organizations," predicts Rick Cohen, president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). But because it is not clear whether the president and Congress will increase funds for social services, current service providers (both secular and religiously affiliated) fear that more agencies will be competing for the same pot of money.

"Where is the money coming from?" says Peter Goldberg, president of the Alliance for Children and Families, the Milwaukee-based association representing more than 350 nonprofit child- and family-serving organizations. "If this is going to be a division of the same pie, that's very unfortunate, because what we need is to enlarge the pie."

Some small faith-based groups would relish a slice. "Absolutely. I've been struggling for 11 years," says Tom Lewis, executive director of the Fishing School, a faith-based after-school and child support center in Washington, D.C., which gets no federal money.

Here is a rundown of the major issues:

The President's Proposals

The faith-based initiative includes several elements. One is the executive order Bush signed in January to create the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and his establishment of similar offices in five federal departments: Health and Human Services, Justice, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor. The Bush administration says those offices will help identify and eliminate "improper federal barriers" to federal funding of faith-based and community-serving programs, through legislative, regulatory and programmatic reforms.

Bush pledged to expand the "charitable choice" provisions of the 1996 welfare reform law to other government services; to create tax breaks to encourage donations to charities that serve the poor, and to direct more AmeriCorps volunteers to faith-based organizations.

Two people are particularly key to how the initiative will be carried out. One is the head of the White House office, University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio, a sociologist who has written and talked extensively (and controversially) about juvenile crime. The other is Stephen Goldsmith, the former Indianapolis mayor whom Bush will nominate to the board of the Corporation for National Service (CNS), which runs AmeriCorps; he is expected to be elected chairman.

Faith-Based Government Funding Today

Obscured in much of the discussion is that "faith groups already get a lot of government money, and they always have," says Richard Murphy, director of the Center for Youth Development at the Academy for Educational Development. Among them: Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services and B'nai B'rith International. Catholic Charities USA reports that in 1999, 62 percent of the $2.32 billion in funds taken in by its local agencies around the country came from government. About 9 percent of the government money was federal, says Sharon Daly, vice president of social policy. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., uses government money, including HUD funds, for homeless shelters, day care, foster care and after-school programs.

Another federal contribution to faith-based work is AmeriCorps. Of the 40,000 AmeriCorps positions last year, nearly 6,000 were in faith-based organizations, according to the CNS.

So What's New?

Charitable Choice applies to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Department of Labor welfare-to-work programs, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Community Services Block Grant. Bush and members of Congress have proposed expanding charitable choice to areas such as after-school programs, sex education, adoption, more substance abuse programs, fatherhood programs, services for children of prisoners, and just about all human services procurements. That could shift a lot of federal dollars to local churches.

Faith-Based and Religiously Affiliated

The faith organizations that get the lion's share of federal dollars are actually religiously affiliated nonprofits set up to raise money for and carry out social services: Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services, etc. They are open to all who need the services, regardless of religious beliefs. Relatively little federal money goes through faith-based entities, such as churches and other religious groups whose members gather because of their shared faith, but which also carry out social services.

The Impact of Charitable Choice

Although Charitable Choice could serve as a study in how expanded federal funding of faith-based programs has worked, there has been no comprehensive study of its impact. When Amy Sherman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, studied how faith-based groups in nine states fared under charitable choice for parts of 1998 and 1999, she found 84 faith-based groups that received funds under that provision. More than half, she said, "had no formal history of contacting with the government. They are new players."

The Center for Public Justice, a Maryland-based Christian policy research organization, released a report card last fall saying that 38 states have failed to remove barriers to faith-based agencies to aid welfare recipients as Congress intended through Charitable Choice. Only four states got A's: Texas (home of President Bush), Indiana (home of Goldsmith), Wisconsin (home of HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson) and Ohio.

Special Treatment

There are several ways that Charitable Choice and the faith-based initiative can or may make it easier for faith-based organizations to provide services with government funds. Charitable Choice allows faith-based groups to carry out those services without removing vestiges of their faith from the service environment, such as religious art and symbols. "We do have crucifixes around" in shelters and other programs funded partly through the government, said Ed Orzechowski, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. "Where we draw the line," he said, is in "trying to persuade someone" to follow certain religious beliefs.

Charitable Choice also lets faith-based groups consider someone's religious beliefs or practices in hiring or disciplinary action.

The Credentials Debate

The battle over the faith-based initiative "is not about money, but regulations," says Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who supports making it easier for faith-based groups to get federal funds. The question is whether faith-based groups will be exempt from requirements that they be accredited to provide certain services by, for instance, the Council on Accreditation for Children and Family Services (COA), that the services be provided according to specified standards, or that certain employees (such as substance abuse counselors) be credentialed to provide the services.

During his presidential campaign, Bush said such requirements impede effective faith-based agencies from getting government contracts. He advocated a "results-oriented" approach, meaning that some credential and training standards might not matter if an approach is effective.

"There are faith-based organizations that engage in drug abuse counseling who do not follow the standard, usually medical, model," says Sherman. "There have been documented successes of the faith-based model."

"We hope they will not go that route," said Daly of Catholic Charities. "If some of the bidders [for federal funds] are held to lower standards than others, the fear is that will drive down the standards throughout the field."

Aside from the philosophical debate, there's a business interest here: Many nonprofit agencies that get government contracts have invested considerable time and money meeting government credential and accreditation standards. Catholic Charities, for instance, encourages its member agencies to be accredited by the COA. Such agencies would be at a competitive disadvantage if newcomers could win contracts without going through the expense of credentialing and accreditation.

"What's unlevel about the playing field?" Goldberg asks of the current regulations. He says training and credential requirements "are really important to having a strong system of nonprofit human services."

Some members of Congress are pushing legislation that could free faith-based providers from credential requirements. The Drug Abuse Education, Prevention and Treatment Act of 2001, introduced last month by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), says the substance abuse services can be provided by faith-based groups, and "shall be based on a program shown to be efficacious and shall incorporate research-based principles of effective substance abuse treatment." Hatch inserted the language over objections by Leahy, who vowed to fight it.

"We need to make sure that those who receive federal drug treatment and prevention funds are trained professionals," Leahy said in a prepared statement.

Patrick Boyle can be reached at pboyle@youthtoday.org.