Ministering to the Poor
Church and State Together Again
by James Ridgeway
Dollars and Sense magazine, March / April 2001
For years, mainstream politicians have used poor people as
a political football, excoriating them for their supposed moral
failings and attacking them as a drain on the public treasury.
From Bill Clinton, we got "personal responsibility."
Then came George W. Bush with "compassionate conservatism,"
or "faith-based" initiatives to help the poor.
Clinton's "welfare reform" program gave public and
private social-service agencies new latitude to impose moral conditions
on poor people, and to deny aid to those who fail to comply. Under
Bush's faith-based proposal, the poor will fare even worse. Bush's
plan, like Clinton's, isn't really about helping poor people.
It's about controlling them. And it's about killing off what's
left of the New Deal state and divvying up the remains.
PRIVATE CHARITY AND CHRISTIAN MORALITY
Bush may accomplish what the Right has been trying to achieve
for years - the replacement of a state-run system of entitlements
with a voluntary program of moral charity rooted in the Victorian
era. In her 1996 book, The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian
Virtues to Modern Values, leading conservative Gertrude Himmelfarb
criticized the current welfare system. "We have so completely
rejected any kind of moral principle," Himmelfarb claimed,
"that we have deliberately, systematically divorced poor
relief from moral sanctions and incentives." For inspiration,
she looks back to the Victorians, who - steeped in the traditions
of Methodism and Evangelicalism - offered moral and spiritual
discipline as well as material aid.
In the world of private charity, the Victorian ethos is alive
and well. The conservative American Enterprise Institute touts
the Mormon Church's "bishops' storehouse," a system
for doling out food and other essentials to the "truly needy"
(as determined by the bishops) in exchange for services rendered
to the Church. A recently published essay collection, Loving Your
Neighbor: A Principled Guide to Personal Charity - edited by informal
Bush adviser Marvin Olasky, who coined the phrase "compassionate
conservatism" - highlights "success stories" like
a New York soup kitchen that promotes "personal responsibility,"
and "pregnancy care centers" in Maryland that offer
low-income pregnant women moral ministration along with a place
Bush himself has been a master at mixing Christian piety and
public funds. As governor of Texas, he helped to set up the first
Christian-run wing inside a state jail, and he even supported
making Christian conversion an "explicit goal." Don
Willett, the governor's director of special projects, told Joe
Loconte of the conservative Heritage Foundation that the state
of Texas did not intend to "merely duplicate the weaknesses
of government style aid." Rather, Willett explained, "we
are trying to create a safe harbor for explicitly religious programs."
Now that conservatives have destroyed the federal welfare
apparatus, they plan to replicate these models nationwide. The
2000 Republican Party platform praised charitable and faith-based
organizations for "making great strides in overcoming poverty
and other social problems." During the presidential campaign,
Bush pledged to "allow private and religious groups to compete
to provide services in every federal, state and local social program."
"Wherever we can," he added, "we must expand their
role and reach." If Bush has his way, that reach will extend
to homes for unwed mothers, federal after-school programs, drug
treatment centers, shelters for battered spouses and children,
homeless shelters, prisons, and even medical insurance for the
Bush has wasted no time getting his program underway. He already
has set up a White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
He also plans to create a "compassion capital fund"
- costing $1.8 billion over ten years - that will help small charities,
including religious organizations, to obtain federal funds.
POOR PEOPLE: A TAX DEDUCTION
The poor already represent a major source of tax deductions
for rich people and large corporations. In recent decades, private
groups have taken over the job of channeling food from agribusiness
to the poor. Last year, America's Second Harvest - a network of
more than 200 food banks and services that distributes free food
through 50,000 charitable agencies - provided 26 million people
with a billion pounds of food. Much of that food comes from companies
like Nabisco, which get substantial tax write-offs in return.
Bush's brand of "compassionate conservatism" will
offer incentives for individuals and corporations to donate even
more. Currently, only taxpayers who itemize deductions can write
off charitable contributions. Bush wants to allow non-itemizers
(taxpayers who claim the standard deduction) to deduct their charitable
donations too. Another scheme would let people over age 59 withdraw
money from their Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) for charitable
giving, without paying the tax penalty that would normally apply.
The Bush plan would also permit corporations to deduct up to 15%
of their taxable income for charitable donations, instead of the
current limit of 10%.
It's not at all clear, though, that Bush expects rich people
to do all the spending. In 1999, charities reported donations
totaling $ 190 billion - up 41 % from 1995.
Much of that money came from wealthy households: According
to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP),
90% of those with incomes over $100,000 made charitable contributions.
But Bush's other tax proposals will reduce incentives for rich
people to give. For example, the wealthy often donate to charity
in order to reduce their estate taxes. If Bush succeeds in repealing
the estate tax, charitable donations could decline by at least
$ 1 billion, according to one Treasury Department report. NCRP
officials worry that nonprofits will suffer if the repeal goes
If the rich stop giving, then who will fund the faith-based
initiatives to help the poor? Why, the poor themselves. Already,
half of all households with incomes below $10,000 give to charity.
Under Bush's charitable deduction proposal, low-income contributions
would undoubtedly rise. According to a study commissioned by Independent
Sector, a group of Washington-based charities, the Bush plan could
bring in another $14.6 billion for charity each year - most of
it from low- and middle income people.
And if that happens, the churches will be most likely to cash
in. In 1999, 43% of all charitable donations went to support religion;
the next-biggest category, education, got less than 15%. Right
now, religious groups get 70% of all charitable contributions
made by low- and middle income people who don't itemize their
deductions. In the Heritage Foundation's Mandate for Leadership,
published in 1996, Adam Meyerson reported that weekly churchgoers
gave a higher proportion of their incomes to charity than those
who attended church less than once a month. "Religious revival,"
Meyerson said, "dwarfs tax incentives as a means to encourage
more involvement with charity." Maybe so, but greater tax
incentives are bound to boost that involvement even more.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
Currently, government regulations require faith-based service
providers to keep their religious and social-service activities
distinct. Bush's aim is to bring the two missions closer together.
If he succeeds, churches could infuse social-service programs
with religious zeal. That's a major concern for the Rev. C. Welton
Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, which opposes
the religious right. Speaking to the New York Times last December,
Gaddy warned that, under the Bush proposal, organizations "could
turn food or clothing or counseling or rehabilitation into a tool
for proselytizing," with government support. The results
could be devastating for poor people, who might be denied services
for failing to adhere to a certain religious affiliation or set
of moral codes. People in need might simply avoid programs that
offer spiritual salvation along with material assistance, out
of discomfort or fear. If right-wing fundamentalists - Bush's
favored constituency- fare best in the contest for federal dollars,
these problems will be especially acute. Bush aides say they will
work to ensure that secular alternatives are available, but they
don't say how they will make this happen.
Under the Bush program, it seems unlikely that the government
will be able - or willing - to keep churches from misusing public
funds. Writing in the New York Times last December, Forrest Church,
senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan, admitted
that the lure of public aid was "tempting." But, he
added, "I've been tempted before." He described how,
16 years earlier, a state senator had given his church, along
with 11 others, $10,000 each in public funds for community outreach.
"When I received this manna from Albany," Church said,
"I immediately turned it back - for a good reason. It would
have been too easy to spend the money on religious programs, instead
of charitable ones, and not be caught."
Finally, the level and quality of services will undoubtedly
decline. Social-services funding is already grossly inadequate,
and Bush's plans to cut taxes for the wealthy will reduce federal
revenues even more. On top of that, his charitable deduction scheme,
according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Taxation, will
cost an estimated $75 billion over ten years. All of this means
fewer resources for social programs, whether they are publicly
or privately run. Even if there's a simultaneous jump in charitable
donations, there's no guarantee that the money will go to help
the poor. As a result, even well-meaning churches will have to
cut corners. And since Bush supports alternative licensing requirements
for church-based programs, the quality of services will probably
Since 1996, when "welfare reform" was enacted, the
number of unemployed, childless adults receiving food stamps has
dropped by 59% nationally, and in New York City, by nearly 70%.
Without soup kitchens and food pantries, many of which are operated
by churches, millions of people would have no food. But the need
is so great that private agencies - even those with no religious
affiliations or motivations - cannot possibly fill the void. Nor
should they be asked to do so. As a society, we have an obligation
to provide people with the basic necessities of life. That's the
job of the state, not the church.
PRIVATE CHARITY AS A POLITICAL TOOL
Quite aside from the moral rituals, the Bush camp is using
religion to pull together previously warring factions under the
Republican big tent. This is no easy task. The Republicans are
divided when it comes to a central theory of governance. By far
the most boisterous and aggressive branch of the party on economic
issues advocates a straight-up libertarian-style approach, aiming
at every turn to cut back the functions of the federal government,
reduce or eliminate taxes, and push programs and policy-making
towards the local level. Libertarian-minded Republicans don't
much care about abortion or other "moral" questions.
Opposing this libertarian tendency is the Christian Right,
which wants to harness the power of the central government to
implement such pet social policies as banning abortion, outlawing
same-sex marriage, and stigmatizing divorce. In short, the Christian
Right wants to enforce a return to the so-called nuclear family
- with criminal penalties f need be.
During the Reagan era, the two factions set aside their differences
to unite under the banner of anti-communism. Since the Berlin
Wall came down, they've been trying to paper together alliances
under the banner of the drug war, the threat of rogue states,
and the income tax. Although those campaigns have succeeded, they
still haven't managed to unite the party into one juggernaut.
"Compassionate conservatism" offers a rationale
for getting everyone together again. By encouraging
the churches to take over welfare, Bush is promising them
federal money and an arena in which they can proselytize and construct
a Disney-like replica of Victoriana. They may not get to administer
a whole state under Bush, but they'll have a chance to become
the Gestapo of the underclass. Under Bush's program, churches
will be able to raise their own money in a unique situation, fishing
for donations with the lure of massive tax write-offs and the
knowledge that, should they fall on hard times, the federal government
will back them up. As for the libertarians, they will get reduced
taxes, a diminution of federal programs, and hence a reduced federal
budget. In this equation, moral charity replaces anti communism
as the Republican Party's unifying theme.
If the Republicans play their cards right, they can also bring
some of their historic adversaries into the fold. There was evidence
of this at last summer's Republican convention, where the fire
and brimstone of the Christian Coalition was replaced by a scene
many Republicans have been dreaming of- a nice, clean, black Greater
Exodus Baptist Church in the heart of Philadelphia, with a neatly-attired
choir singing religious tunes to an audience of nervous but friendly
white people, and then enthusiastically applauding as officials
from the conservative Manhattan Institute read off polling data
showing that people who go to church make good citizens. On hand
to extol "compassionate conservatism" were such dignitaries
as the church's pastor, Herbert H. Lusk II (the former "Praying
Tailback" for the Philadelphia Eagles) and the city's former
Democratic mayor-turned-preacher, Wilson Goode.
The courtship didn't end there. Last December, Bush met in
Austin with about 30 religious leaders - including a dozen black
ministers - to discuss his plans for expanding the role of the
church. At the gathering, Bush talked openly about needing to
win over the black community. Clearly, he sees faith-based programs
as a route to that goal.
Not everyone finds the overtures convincing. Yvonne Scruggs,
executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, criticized Bush
for not inviting the eight largest black denominations - representing
65,000 churches and ten million members - to Austin. "We
are a little skeptical of the sincerity of his claim he's reaching
out," she told the Albany, N.Y., Times-Union in January.
Bishop John Hurst Adams, head of the Church and Society Committee
of the Congress of National Black Churches, told the Times-Union
that the Austin meeting was "an affront to the black church,
its leadership, and all African Americans."
Some progressive clergy, though, are cautiously optimistic.
Rev. Jim Wallis, of the liberal-minded Sojourners, attended the
Austin meeting. "Perhaps," said Wallis, "a Republican
preaching compassionate conservatism, working with Democrats who
want to fight for poor working families, and both joined by faith-based
organizations at work on the streets, could accomplish things
that neither Democrats and Republicans have been able to do."
But as the record shows, neither party is much interested
in helping poor people. It's hard to see how this latest scheme
- which will further diminish access to public services in the
guise of moral instruction - signals a change of heart.
Resources: American Association of Fundraising Counsel <www.givingusa.org>;
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research <www.aei.org>;
America's Second Harvest <www. secondharvest.org>; Heritage
Foundation <www.heritage.org>; National Committee for Responsive
Philanthropy <www.ncrp.org>; Sojourners <www.sojourners.com>.
James Ridgeway is the Washington correspondent for Village