Thursday, July 3, 2008

Faith-Based Social Programs: Ending the Honeypot Mentality

Lots of thoughtful analysis today of Obama’s proposal to continue (and correct) the Bush faith-based social service initiative, a subject about which I blogged yesterday. Alternet provides helpful excerpts from a recently published book—Frederick Lane’s The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court (Boston: Beacon, 2008) (see

The Alternet article—“Christian Nation: Bush Moves Big Bucks to Religious Organizations”—makes points similar to ones I’ve made in my own postings. In what follows, I’d like to offer excerpts along with commentary based on my experience working with faith-based social service organizations:

First, as I have noted, the faith-based programs are currently not reaching the goals Bush announced for them when he implemented them. A significant reason for their failure is insufficient funding. The needs these programs are intended to address are abundant; the funds provided are nowhere nearly adequate to meet those needs.

What we see going on currently with the transfer of social services from the federal and state level to communities of faith is a shell game, pure and simple. This transfer absolves our society of the obligation—previously regarded as the obligation of all of us through citizen-funded government services—to assist the least among us. We assume that because communities of faith have always proclaimed their concern to address these needs, throwing bits of money at these communities while ending tax-funded social programs will meet social needs.

We assume wrongly. As Lane notes,
The more significant story was contained in David Kuo's 2007 book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. Kuo, the number two official in OFBCI from 2001 to 2003, wrote a classic ex-administration-insider, where-the-bodies-are-buried book, the chief purpose of which was to complain that Bush and his political advisers had in fact not done enough to channel funds to FBOs -- by Kuo's calculation, just 1 percent of what Bush had publicly promised (my emphasis added).
Second, there is wildly insufficient accounting for the funds presently being disbursed through the faith-based programs. As the faith-based initiative is currently configured, it gives the benefit of the doubt to faith-based communities, in reporting results and use of funds they have received.

My posting yesterday offers what I consider to be weighty reasons for vigilance on the part of the government, even when (and perhaps particularly when) taxpayer monies are being given to faith communities providing social services. Lane notes,
More than anything else, the OFBCI and the various agency centers have been tremendously successful at awarding funds to faith-based organizations with few if any strings attached . . . . One of the significant problems with the Bush faith-based initiative is that no one really knows where the money is going. In January 2006, Josephine Robinson, director of the Office of Community Services within the Health and Human Services Department, conceded to the Chicago Tribune that given the number of staff in her office, there was definitely a limit to how much monitoring of grant recipients could take place. FBOs are not supposed to use federal money for "inherently religious" activities, but the combination of vague guidelines and inadequate oversight makes it virtually impossible to know if the boundaries of the Constitution are being observed (my emphasis added).
Third, the faith-based initiative, as it is currently configured, has set up a para-government structure based in the private sector, ostensibly to provide quality control in faith-based social service programs. This para-government structure is not working.

In my experience, many of the operatives in this supervisory structure are ideologues of the religious right who have little knowledge of the social needs and social services they are being paid to oversee. In many cases, their “assistance” is perfunctory at best; at worst, it is intrusive and designed to force the programs to conform to ideological goals of the religious right.

Those providing the supervisory services are paid an arm and a leg for shoddy services: they are mopping up at the expense of those in need whom faith-based programs are supposed to be serving; they are, essentially, being rewarded for being loyal foot-soldiers of the Bush administration—nothing more and nothing less.

On this point, Lane notes,
As part of his faith-based initiative, Bush also instructed the secretary of Health and Human Services to use his Demonstration and Research Authority, a program within HHS, to establish the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF). According to the CCF's website, the purpose of the fund is to "help faith-based and community organizations increase their effectiveness and enhance their ability to provide social services by building their organizational capacity." The Republican Congress appropriated $30 million for the CCF in FY 2002, and over the next four years, more than doubled the size of the program to $64.4 million in FY 2006.

The CCF's goal of training FBOs to become more effective applicants for the federal funds available under Bush's executive order is disconcerting enough. Even more worrisome is the fact that the CCF does not directly administer its funds itself. Instead, it awards grants to "intermediary organizations" that are charged with providing "technical assistance and capacity-building sub-awards" to smaller FBOs . . . .

A portion of his [i.e., Kuo’s] book is devoted to a discussion of the political uses of the Compassion Capital Fund, in which a handpicked panel of Religious Right activists graded the grant applications. Many groups, Kuo said, received high scores (and thus grants) more on the strength of their support for the Bush administration than their ability to provide assistance to the poor and downtrodden. A review panel member reportedly told Kuo some time later that when she saw an application from a non-Christian group, she simply gave the application a zero and moved on. According to the panelist, many of her peers did the same thing.
Fourth, there is the crucial issue of religiously based discrimination. As currently configured, the faith-based program allows religious groups freedom to discriminate that is not permitted to any other program or group receiving federal funds.

As Lane indicates,
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, religious organizations have always had a limited exemption to discriminate on the basis of religion for religiously oriented positions in their organization (for instance, a Unitarian Church can advertise for and hire only Unitarians to serve as minister). But Title VII's prohibitions against discrimination on other grounds -- race, gender, national orientation, etc. -- still apply, and when filling purely secular positions, the prohibition against religious discrimination must be observed as well. When Congress passed the Job Training Partnership Act in 1982, it permitted religious organizations to participate in the federally funded program only so long as they agreed not to discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring anyone under the program.
. . .

As Representative Barney Frank, D-Mass., inimitably put it, "The notion that you need to allow religious groups to discriminate to receive federal funds is a lie. If you dip your fingers in the federal till, you can't complain if a little democracy rubs off on you" (my emphasis added).
I also highly recommend Pam Spaulding’s commentary entitled “That Little Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Idea . . .” ( As Pam Spaulding notes, before reacting to Obama’s proposal, it is advisable to read what he actually said in his speech earlier this week about faith-based programs. Her article helpfully appends the text of the speech, along with a fact sheet from the Obama campaign commenting on the speech.

Pam Spaulding also notes that how the program is currently configured and operating under Bush “poisons the waters of discussion.” As she states, “Truth be told, the Bush administration did precious little with this office other than use it as a carrot to dangle in front of fundies as proof of ‘his compassion agenda’ and the access he granted to them. It was largely a sham.”

That is absolutely correct. I have worked in various capacities with a number of faith-based social programs primarily focusing on needs within African-American communities—needs including literacy development for youth, daycare for working teen mothers, educational and other assistance for single teen mothers, provision of medical and other services for those living with HIV and AIDs, and so on.

In each instance, I have seen tremendous needs—unmet needs, needs that cannot be met with the pittance of funding provided through faith-based programs. The faith-based initiative is allowing an entire generation of needy Americans to slip through the cracks of social assistance networks. We all pay a price when anyone among us goes uneducated, hungry, uncared-for in the crucial childhood or teen or elder years, without adequate medical treatment, unemployed, etc.

In the programs with which I’ve been affiliated, there is a draconian competition among faith groups for the pittance of funds available to all of these groups. The program, as currently configured, pits one faith-based group against another, as all compete for the same tiny pot of funding. The predictable winners in this Darwinian lottery are groups most pliable to the political mandates of the current administration.

Various levels of supervision and vetting have been set up to assure that organizations receiving funding are with the Bush program. For instance, in many states, even federal grants given to faith-based groups are vetted locally by the governor—by the Republican governor, in a large number of states.

This assures a corrupt system of patronage in which groups loyal to state and federal Republican administrations receive preferential treatment. Proposals sent by groups under a cloud of ideological suspicion do not receive careful attention, even when they are superbly crafted, have accounting checks and balances in place, come from programs with demonstrable track records of achievement, and are more likely to address the social needs targeted by the program than are other proposals. Proposals from groups that have strong lobbying and other ties to state-level Republican administrations receive much more favorable reception.

In my experience, the corruption extends to the private-sector groups set up to provide “assistance” to organizations receiving faith-based funding. In one program with which I have worked, which served African-American inner-city teen mothers and their children, the group assigned to “assist” was a largely white, ideologically rigid (and all male) group associated with a “family-values” church that has widespread influence in the Western part of the country.

The “assistance” this group provided the faith-based program serving an African-American community was shameful. It consisted largely of taking data from the faith-based group and running it through a computerized template used for every client of this organization—regardless of where those clients were, who they served, the size of their organization, and so on. Every meeting I ever attended with these “assistants” convinced me of their sense of racial superiority to the population being served by the faith-based organization I was helping; every meeting demonstrated to me the almost non-existent expertise of the “assistants,” when it came to understanding and truly helping the faith-based group and those it served.

I should also note that the “assisting” organization was making a killing out of its ties to the Bush faith-based program. And the money it was making was not money it truly earned: it did almost nothing for the money it earned.

A few years ago, in my capacity as an academic administrator, I had the opportunity to attend a conference of faith-based social service programs in Florida. What I saw there was eye-opening. Prior to the conference, none of us attending received any instructions about the time and place of registration.

When I arrived at the center at which the conference was to be held, scores of us were wandering around button-holing any bypasser we could find, to discover where we were to register. When we finally found the location, we discovered a desk at which the registration staff were sitting, with letters of the alphabet indicating where those with particular surnames should line up.

The only problem was, the letters were not above the people doing the registration: they were below them, invisible in the crowd of folks standing in line to be registered. My line snaked through an area that had large cache-pots of plants, which prevented those of us with L surnames from reaching the registration desk.

As I stood in line, I chatted with a very pleasant woman from a faith-based social service organization serving an inner-city African-American population in south Florida. We both found the shoddiness of the conference preparations unbelievable. At one point, she observed, “If I ran my program the way this federal conference is being run, they’d shut me down.”

Consistently, in all the sessions I attended, personnel from the federal faith-based program were ill-informed and unprepared. In one session, a federal presenter handed out forms that she announced we might as well ignore, since they were out of date—but she had no up-to-date forms to give us. In other sessions, we were provided with typewritten (and misspelled) forms that might have been composed by someone in junior high school.

We deserve better. We who fund these programs deserve better for the money we are giving to the programs. But above all, those being served by faith-based programs deserve better. In far too many instances, what is happening now is an unsupervised take-the-money-and run shell game in which faith-based groups are not expected to demonstrate results for monies handed to them, or to account for their use of funds received.

As I have noted, this ultimately corrupts those receiving faith-based funding, when their own faith-based community does not have stringent guidelines for fiscal management. An illustration: in my work as an academic administrator at a faith-based historically black college/university (HBCU), when I was given the unpleasant task of supervising a refractory employee who oversees a federally funded program, the employee and her staff informed me that they would not accept my request that they account for their use of funds.

The employee refused to provide me with a budget showing who was being paid (and how much) by the program. My persistent attempts to obtain this information resulted in none-too-subtle insinuations that I was harassing the woman overseeing the program, solely because she is a black female (and I a white male). One of her staff members told me—as if my attempt to do my job was motivated by a desire on my part to filch money from the federal program—that, if I wanted a “honeypot” of my own, I should find it, and not try to dip my hands into his boss’s honeypot!

In the long run, I received grief for simply doing what I was asked by the school’s administration to do: to supervise this employee and assure adequate fiscal controls in the program she administered. When I finally left the HBCU to take a job elsewhere, I left a detailed report outlining the many fiscal irregularities I had found but could not correct in the program, since, when push came to shove, the supervisor was protected by the school’s administration and I was punished for trying to do my job.

As far as I know, she continues to administer “her” “honeypot” . . . . Neither the board of the school, which is replete with ministers and a bishop, nor the president, who has strong roots in the church that owns the school, has, to my knowledge, done anything at all to call this employee to accountability or to assure that her program exercises fiscal responsibility.

This should not be going on. It is a travesty. Church people, black or white, green or yellow, should not be buying into faith-based programs that encourage or reward dishonesty, shabby work, and outright theft. Those faith-based programs that operate this way undermine the credibility of the many faith-based programs operated by honest, hard-working folks who are truly concerned to meet human needs.

And, again, the discrimination question: above all, faith-based communities should not be rewarded for discriminating. As I stated yesterday, my bottom line for supporting Obama’s faith-based initiative will be to see whether he truly does stop up the holes permitted by the current Bush program, which allow church-based groups to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

If we do not permit gender-based and race-based discrimination in federally funded programs, then we have no business permitting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in these programs—regardless of the religious views of the group receiving funding. This is a human rights issue in which our democratic commitment to fundamental human rights must override the intent of religious groups to discriminate.

After all, groups have every right to forgo federal funding on the basis of religious principles, if their desire to discriminate overrides their commitment to human rights. Catholic Charities in Boston stopped providing adoption services when government guidelines required that it not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. In places like Denver and Great Britain, Catholic Charities has expressed an intent to close rather than to be forced by government guidelines to prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

No one is forcing any of these faith-based groups to apply for or accept federal funding. Just as the groups have the freedom to discriminate in-house, they also have the freedom not to apply for federal funding when they have religious scruples about human rights principles to which they are expected to adhere, in order to receive federal funding. Barney Frank is absolutely right when he notes, "The notion that you need to allow religious groups to discriminate to receive federal funds is a lie. If you dip your fingers in the federal till, you can't complain if a little democracy rubs off on you."


Brad C. said...

Bill, I hate it when I read one of your personal historacal examples and know exactly who you are talking about. I hate it even more when I read one of your personal historical examples and am not sure who it is because the example fits any one of two or more people.

William D. Lindsey said...

Good to hear from you, as always, BC.

You're right: some of the players in these dramas will inevitably seem familiar, because--sad to say--they seem to be everywhere. My examples are drawn from a number of life experiences where I've learned to identify "types": people who always try to game the system; people who will game the system, given the chance; and the rare few who would cut off their hands rather than do or say anything dishonest.

I think it has been a horrible precedent for our government to hand out funds to church-based groups without requiring those groups to account for the funds they've gotten--both for how they've used the funds and the results they've gotten from the funds.

As a tax-payer, I have a vested interest in wanting my money to go to good uses. As someone who wants a better participatory democracy, I also have a vested interest in seeing social service programs that really fulfill their promise.

I'm deeply sad at a lot of what I see going on in the faith-based community. That Florida conference I attended was like one big prayer meeting, when we all gathered for plenaries. Lots of Jesus this and Jesus that, with total disregard for anyone from other faith traditions who may have been in the audience. The shoddiness of the conference went hand in hand with its overtly religious mode.

These programs have breached the church-state barrier. They don't have to do so, if administered right. I will be interested in seeing whether Mr. Obama can deliver on his promise to correct them even as he maintains them.