Bless Us, Oh Lord, And These Thy Grants

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Is God a Republican? God only knows. Are congressional Republicans, the Bush administration and conservative grant reviewers answering the prayers of GOP-leaning federal grant applicants? Only God, so far at least, knows that, too.

In an era of declining federal grant making, controversy centers on three areas: President Bush’s faith-based initiative; the weight, if any, given to “evidence-based” program decisions in competitive grant making; and the alleged partisan manipulation in the awarding of federal grants, contracts and cooperative agreements. These issues have produced a barrage of complaints, often from local youth-serving agencies and national groups that have lost their funding – but little in the way of solid, damning evidence of harm to youth service providers.

Faith Healer?

Nine days after his inauguration, Bush baptized his only begotten compassionate conservative baby: The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (WHOFBCI). The agency, initially helmed by John DiIulio, is now headed by Jim Towey. “The paramount goal is compassionate results,” declared the new president of his signature domestic initiative.

The premise for the president’s initiative is and remains that sectarian religious groups and para-church organizations have been systematically and unfairly discriminated against in federal grant making. That came as a revelation to many service providers with religious affiliations, including some of the nation’s largest such organizations: Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and Volunteers of America.

When the White House asked Congress to enact legislation whose most controversial feature was allowing employment discrimination by faith-based organizations (FBOs) that use federal funds, the Senate balked.

Undeterred, the White House moved to accomplish the president’s aims by issuing executive orders. It set up cabinet-level counterparts to the White House faith-based office, which is staffed by political loyalists untutored in the ways of federal administrative and grant-making procedures. Despite the inclusion of “community” in their job titles, the Bush administration’s operational and political focus has been overwhelmingly tilted toward the FBOs part of the equation.

In August 2001, the White House released “Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs” ( It covers five cabinet departments that account for the vast majority of competitive social service grants made annually.

The report claims that religiously affiliated groups are largely locked out of federal money by “overly restrictive Agency rules that are repressive, restrictive, and which actively undermine the established civil rights” of those groups. The report purports to be based on “the first-ever audit of federal programs,” but is about is persuasive as an Arthur Andersen audit of Enron.

First, the report identifies the satanic enemy by proclaiming, “The nonprofit organizations that administer social services funded by Washington are typically large and entrenched, in almost monopolistic fashion.”

The White House asked classic garbage-in, garbage-out questions: “What percentage of grant funding in a range of programs goes to nonprofit organizations … and of that amount, how much has gone to faith-based groups and how much to community-based groups?”

It is a testament to the lack of discrimination against qualified faith-based groups that “to complicate matters,” the report finds, “there are no standard federal definitions of faith-based and community-based organizations.”

Nor, it could have added, should there be. Just defining what a religion is has eluded the Supreme Court for more than 200 years.

“Notwithstanding these fundamental data-keeping problems,” the White House “audit,” guided apparently by faith alone, soldiered onward. One expert on the report and its methodology is Anne Farris, who works for the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute. “The White House Faith-Based staff didn’t explain how they did it,” she says, making an evidence-based assessment of the White House assessment impossible.

The White House researchers came up with a series of ridiculous questions whose purposes were to claim discriminatory grant-making practices, then to provide an artificially low baseline from which the Bush administration could proclaim improvements during the president’s re-election campaign.

For example, at the Department of Justice (DOJ) – which includes several entities funding youth work, including the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – the “auditors” found that in fiscal 2001, only one-third of 1 percent of grants went to faith-based groups ($1.9 million), while 7.5 percent went to community groups ($47.2 million out of a total pot of $627.7 million). Really? Just the fiscal 2004 noncompetitive award of $85 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America is twice that figure. Most DOJ grants go to law enforcement for activities beyond the scope of an “audit” on “the delivery of social services.”

Since Bush took office, he has signed into law five major tax cuts totaling over $2 trillion. In late October he signed corporate tax cuts that are expected to reduce federal tax revenue by $350 billion over the next 10 years. The deficit last year was the largest in American history, totaling $413 billion.

In the face of these numbers, believing in an expanding pool of grants for any type of social services is perhaps best left to the blindly faithful, not to those dismal economists. To reach the faithful, the WHOFBCI created a Compassion Capital Fund (CCF), with a pronounced tilt of the playing field toward boosters of the Faith-Based Initiative.

In fiscal 2003, some 21 intermediaries received large grants totaling about $29 million – out of a pot of $32 million. That left everyone else to vie for 50 grants of $50,000 apiece. The CCF’s largest grantee, receiving $2.5 million per year, is the Sterling, Va.-based Institute for Youth Development (IYD). It is run by Shepherd Smith, one of those rare national youth service operatives who, to great effect, works preponderantly on the GOP side of the aisle.

“IYD’s principal objective for the CCF project,” says its website, “is to facilitate access to federal funding for faith- and community-based organizations.” IYD and other groups – including the South Carolina Republican Party – have sponsored hundreds of “how to get federal grants” conferences, at least 13 of them officially run by the White House. The Rockefeller Institute says the sessions have drawn “tens of thousands of religious leaders.”

Smith’s IYD alone holds 40 sessions a year, claiming a total attendance of more than 5,000. Smith says his CCF effort is “a well-received program throughout the country. … Who benefits most are the folks from communities of color.”

The WHOFBCI has also put out a 67-page catalog of some 150 federal programs that have $50 billion there just for the asking. A $2.2 million grant from the CCF set up a national resource center and clearinghouse for interested parties (

For fiscal 2005, the Bush administration has proposed increasing the CCF to $55 million. But with 13,000 faith-based groups on the WHOFBCI’s email list, Towey had best pray for a bread-and-fishes miracle rivaling that performed by Jesus before he preached the Sermon on the Mount.

An attempt to figure out just how well the Faith-Based Initiative has done to “penetrate agency operations” is the subject of an excellent report, “Expanding the Administrative Presidency,” written by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y. (

The report explores how the Faith-Based Initiative “has been pervasively and methodically implemented in the workings of the federal government.” What it actually documents is the steady drumbeat for the initiative by the president, using tactics identical to those made so familiar by the Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq fiasco.

“The days of discrimination against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end,” the president said in a December 2002 speech in Philadelphia. By March 2004, Bush said victory over his fictitious demon was in sight, thanks to various executive orders. The president declared, “Congress wouldn’t act, so … I did it on my own. It [the executive order] says we’re going to open up billions of dollars in grant money competition to faith-based charities.”

But Bush’s numbers don’t work. The 2001 Unlevel Playing Field report said discretionary grants in the five largest domestic federal departments totaled about $24.9 billion dollars, just 13 percent of the $185.1 billion that the five departments spent on grants. (Formula grants, a favorite of the GOP, go exclusively to states and other units of government.)

Much of the that 13 percent goes to local school districts, public housing authorities, work force investment boards, health departments and the like. Another chunk goes to scientific and medical research – poor prospects for grass-roots grant making, unless West Virginia snake healers, creationists in Kansas or Oregon peyote users are tomorrow’s federal grantees.

No Room at the Inn for New FBOs

One federal agency where the Faith-Based Initiative might be expected to smite the “almost monopolistic” grantees like an avenging angel is the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) within the Administration for Children and Families of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The once somnolent shop had a staff of four when Harry Wilson – a career youth worker with 22 years of experience at the Starr Commonwealth child welfare agency in Michigan – was tapped by an old friend, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Wade Horn. Wilson became associate commissioner in May 2001. FYSB has grown steadily since then; it now has a staff of 27 and six major programs, with a fiscal 2004 budget of $333 million.

Since 1974, under various official names, FYSB’s core program has been the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, now officially the Runaway, Homeless, and Missing Children Protection Act of 2003. In fiscal 2003 and 2004, it was an $89.4 million, two-part program that funded 129 “basic center” shelters in every state (at $49.2 million), along with 213 Transitional Living Programs (TLP) in 48 states (at $40.2 million).

Only the largest metropolitan areas need a multiplicity of crisis service providers for the basic centers’ specialized and challenging area of youth work. The others need one or two excellent programs ready and willing to take in teens directly from the streets.

One example is Rochester, N.Y., where the 12-bed Center for Youth (CY), directed by Elaine Spaull, has taken in kids on the lam since 1973. It was one of FYSB’s first grantees in 1975; its basic center grant in 2004 was for $186,000. (It also received two other FYSB grants.) This funding history qualifies CY as one of those federal grant monopolists decried in the White House’s Unlevel Playing Field report.

This year CY got one day’s notice that its basic center grant was ending. Was the CY’s failure to win a grant renewal a result of a shift to faith-based grant applicants? The evidence for that is scant. Last year FYSB reviewed 207 basic center proposals; this year it reviewed 215. “There’s not a whole lot of new applicants out there,” says FYSB’s Wilson.

What also isn’t out there is an adequate congressional appropriation to fund all worthy renewals. In 2003, Congress allowed for flexibility in the percentage of the total appropriation available for basic centers, with most of the rest going to the transitional living effort, where this year 249 applicants competed for 43 grants.

A review of the new grantees list for all FYSB programs reveals only the normal (if painful) amount of grantee turnover. Of the new awards, only 12 had never received TLP funding and 17 were previous TLP grantees. Only four never-before funded new grantees have a religious affiliation: one Lutheran, one Catholic, and two affiliates of Volunteers of America. All the TLP awardees were soldiers in Bush’s “armies of compassion” even back in the ’90s, when presumably God was a Democrat.

The White House “Unlevel Playing Field” report noted ominously that “… in the Runaway and Homeless Youth Program only 17 organizations appear on the top 10 lists” of the largest FYSB grantees over the previous five fiscal years. But one jarring result of the Bush administration’s chorus of hosannas for faith-based providers, coupled with back-handed attacks on current service providers, has been a profound loss of faith in the integrity of the grant review system among youth service providers funded by any federal agency, be it the Health and Human Services, Labor or Justice department. Says one Midwestern former executive director of an FYSB-funded agency, “There is a pervasive and well-managed strategy to move money from left to right.”

FYSB’s Wilson acknowledges the grant review process is “not foolproof, by any means” but emphatically denies any discrimination against existing grantees.

But those in the field tell a different story. Several charge that the review criteria published in the Federal Register on April 20 was not followed by the reviewers. Says one insider, “There’s been a big push on getting their [read: conservative] people on the panels” that review grant applications.

Wilson charges that Bush administration critics say new reviewers “come from the moon,” but they are as qualified as ever. He is proud of expanding each grant review panel from four people to five by adding a reviewer in the 19- to 22-year-old range. Wilson says anyone qualified can be considered to review grants by signing up on a website (

About 300 people review FYSB proposals for its six program areas. All reviewers are paid $1,200 a week, plus expenses. One veteran New England youth worker is dismissive of FYSB’s process, noting that he received “short notice” – only a few days – to drop everything and go to Washington for a week to serve on a review panel, a process he says basically leaves the panels to be stocked with “a lot of school teachers off for the summer.”

Vicki Wagner, CEO of the National Network for Youth, has heard complaints from all sides. Looking to the future, Wagner says “FYSB needs an appeal process” for those denied funding. She noted that once the grants are announced, all the money is committed.

Is it? While Rochester’s Center for Youth is out of luck this year, two former FYSB rejects in New York – the Emergency Housing Group in Middletown and the Seaman’s Society for Children and Families in Staten Island – won back their grants through HHS’s de facto appeals process: muscle from Capitol Hill. Where did those funds come from? God only knows.

Walking Faith, Texas Style

Efforts to bring in faith-based groups simply because they claim to be based on religious faith can be hazardous for the propagation of the Faith-Based Initiative. Consider the case of the Faith Walk Center in Cedar Hill, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. The group was founded in 1998, says Executive Director Yolanda Mitchell.

In 2002, Faith Walk received a competitive $200,000 grant from the TLP (which is aimed at serving homeless youth ages 16 to 21) and a $200,000 renewal one year later. (The separate federal – but state-managed – Chaffee Independent Living Program serves youth exiting foster care, with funding of $140 million this year.)

Mitchell claims a group home license and says she served “a total of six” youth with Faith Walk’s $400,000 in federal grants.
Faith Walk is in the good graces of those in high places. In October 2003, Bush went to Dallas to dedicate the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Youth Education Center. Saying, “we’re here to herald” faith-based programs, the president praised HHS for “supporting the Faith Walk Center in Dallas, a program which fights drug abuse amongst young people.”

Even as the president spoke, FYSB officials were gathering the evidence to deny Faith Walk another three years of funding in TLP’s five-year cycle. In an interview about HHS’s $400,000, Mitchell said, “We’re going in a different direction.”

That direction is the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, directed by drug czar John Walters. In fiscal 2003 the Drug-Free Communities Support Program awarded the Faith Walk Center $100,000 for the impressively named Dallas County Partnership Against Drugs. The partners? Yolanda Mitchell – as both executive director and board chairwoman of the coalition, according to the White House – plus, said Mitchell, “a whole lot of businesses and churches.” She could not provide a list of coalition partners.

The ONDCP helpfully notes on its website ( that Mitchell and Mitchell will team up to “reduce substance abuse among youth” in a county with 2,245,398 people. Now that would be a whole lot of miracle.

Faith-Based Mirage

A review of some of the thousands of grants announced by the five federal agencies covered in the Unlevel Playing Field report (as well as those awarded by the Corporation for National Community Service) found little new to alarm even the church-state phobic Americans United or People for the American Way.

Another report, “Funding Faith-Based Social Services in a Time of Fiscal Pressures,” also from the Rockefeller Institute’s Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, concluded that robust growth of Medicaid, the recent recession and tax policies mean slim pickins for FBOs and all nonprofit social service agencies.

The very grant-making agencies the Faith-Based Initiative promotes manage “programs that are small or that are shrinking in real size (or growing very slowly).” The impact of the initiative has been “none at all,” says Sarah Greene, CEO of the National Head Start Association. Says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, “It’s hype, not much pipeline,” with little evidence of gains by bona fide grass-roots FBOs.

Just what is the Bush administration doing with its discretionary funds? Says one expert on Labor Department grant making, “Whatever they damn well please.”

Contact: FYSB 202-205-8102,;
White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (202) 456-6708,; the Rockefeller Institute (518) 443-5014,