Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Faith-Based Social Service Initiative Reconsidered: John DiIulio's Testimony

After the announcement by Mr. Obama last year that he would continue Bush’s faith-based social service programs in his new administration, I blogged a number of times about the faith-based programs (see,,,

As those postings note, I have some experience with these programs both as an administrator in universities that stress civic engagement education, and as a grant-writer for a federally funded faith-based program. As the postings also indicate, I have very serious reservations about the Bush faith-based initiative for the following reasons:

1. It transfers the burden of providing much needed social services from federal and state programs to faith-based communities that do not have the resources to provide adequately for all those they serve through these programs.

2. It provides only a pittance—a token pittance—for these programs, which now do the grunt work of social outreach that was previously done by well-funded and well-administered government programs.

3. It actively encourages abuse of funds on the part of some administrators and church officials, who are sometimes totally incapable of administering the programs for which they have received funds.

4. The program has permitted faith-based groups to accept money without demonstrating solid results for the monies they received, and without accounting adequately for their use of these federal funds.

5. The program permits and even encourages faith-based groups to discriminate, as they apply these funds; LGBT persons, in particular, are targeted by some faith-based groups receiving federal funding, and are actively discriminated against.

6. The program has been highly politicized. In some states (including my own), governors have had final veto power over funding requests as they are sent to the federal level, even when the governor has no expertise in the area being funded and when the program has no statewide implications. This vetting method has allowed governors to r punish faith-based programs that do not toe the line of the governor’s party, and to reward cronies.

These are my first-hand observations about what has been going on with the faith-based social service programs under the last administration. They are observations I made while working at historically black universities (HBCUs), and while working for a faith-based program that provided services to an inner-city African-American community.

They are observations that many black ministers with whom I interact also share. In the view of some of these ministers, the faith-based initiative has been largely a failure, an attempt by the federal government to deny its responsibility to create a social network for the least among us, while shifting that burden to faith communities—many of them African-American—ill-equipped to deal with this burden.

In key respects, some of my ministerial friends in black churches tell me, this program has functioned as a political arm of the Republican machine reaching out to the African-American community in the hope of obtaining more black voters. It throws a smattering of money at many black churches and their pastors, with the goal of tying these communities to the Republican party, and without seeking assurance that the funds given to these communities have been properly used. This program has been, in the view of some of my friends, damaging to many African-American communities.

Given my experiences with the faith-based initiative, I’m interested to read John DiIulio’s take on the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, in the latest issue of America magazine ( DiIulio is an authoritative voice: he was the first director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives when the program was formed. He resigned within his first year as director of this program after having seen that too many Bush programs were staffed by what he called “Mayberry Machiavellis” who lacked even basic knowledge of the programs they were directing ( In his view, the primary interest of this Mayberry crowd was in “steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible.”

DiIulio knows whereof he speaks, in other words—particularly when he addresses the faith-based initiatives. Because of his background with the faith-based programs, and because he continues to applaud President Bush (whom he respects) for implementing these programs, DiIulio’s testimony about these programs should be taken seriously.

DiIulio’s America overview of these faith-based programs is, for the most part, a scathing critique. He notes that they have passed to many nonprofits an impossible expectation of providing social services that they cannot provide, given the level of funding they are receiving under the faith-based programs. He also notes that the data about these programs have been “stretched” by the Bush administration in reports full of “self-congratulatory semi-truths” and “pseudo statistics.”

DiIulio continues to support the faith-based initiative. I, by contrast, am highly skeptical about its ability to meet social needs that should not be passed on to faith groups by a government that should lead the way in providing social safety nets for the least among us.

But if the program is to succeed under President Obama, DiIulio thinks, it must stop engaging in discriminatory behaviors, refrain from overt politicization of social services, and pay attention to research, sound data, and accurate reporting:

To succeed, Obama, a former Catholic Charities community worker in Chicago, must insist that all grantees serve all people in need without regard to religion. He must keep the faith-based effort fact-based, bipartisan and open to corrections. And he must honor all campaign pledges to create or expand programs that benefit low-income children and families.

I hope that if President Obama continues these programs, as he has promised to do, he listens to DiIulio’s recommendations. People are in need, and the program as it is now configured is failing woefully to meet all the social needs it purports to serve. All of us concerned about those who are falling through social safety nets need to keep our eyes on these programs, and demand that they actually serve the needs they target—and provide proof of their results, along with careful records regarding their expenditures of our tax dollars.