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.


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 to stay.

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 poor.

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.


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 through.

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.


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 suffer too.

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.


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 <>; American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research <>; America's Second Harvest <www.>; Heritage Foundation <>; National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy <>; Sojourners <>.


James Ridgeway is the Washington correspondent for Village Voice.

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