Tags: Faith-Based | Programs | Receive | $2.2 | Billion

Faith-Based Programs Receive $2.2 Billion

Sunday, 17 September 2006 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Because of President Bush's faith-based initiative, programs that help the needy and that are affiliated with religious groups now receive more than $2.2 billion a year in federal grants. Before Bush took office, faith-based programs could not get federal funds or were discouraged from applying for them.

Funding for such programs from five key federal agencies alone increased by 38% from fiscal 2003 to fiscal 2005. When Bush came into office, the government did not keep figures on funds given by agencies like HHS, USAID, and HUD to faith-based programs. But the total going to seven agencies is now $2.2 billion.

The media have characterized Bush's faith-based initiative as a way to introduce religion into the public sphere. Because he prays and reads the Bible every day, they routinely portray Bush himself as a religious zealot.

"The media do not understand personal religious faith," Jim Towey, who headed the White House's Faith-based and Community Initiatives for more than four years, told me. "They are comfortable writing about it in its extreme. But it's hard for them to understand people who go out there and serve God and country. They are okay with addicts being bombarded with all sorts of messages, but if a prayer is said in their presence, they say, ‘We have to protect them from that.'"

In fact, many of Bush's closest friends going back to Yale say he has never brought up religion with them. Bush talks about religion publicly only when asked questions by reporters.

After Bush announced his faith-based initiative in 2001, Barry Lynn, who heads Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said, "This is one more example of a president who seems to think he's the pastor of the country."

While the initiative may seem like a way of mixing church and state, further examination reveals that it is simply a way to make sure that organizations that help the needy are not deprived of federal funds simply because they are affiliated with a religious group. The fact that an organization that is affiliated with the Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or Muslim faith receives federal money does not mean the money is used to fund religion. It means the money is channeled to help those who are hungry, addicted to drugs, or illiterate in the most efficient way possible because the organizational structure for attacking those problems and the volunteers to work on them already exist.

Thus, taxpayers do not have to pay for new layers of bureaucracy to distribute the aid. In effect, it is a way to leverage the government's money. The faith-based initiative is an example of Bush's compassionate conservative approach—a practical way to attack social problems without massive federal spending.

To head the program, Bush chose Towey, a Democrat who had been Florida's secretary of health and social services under Governor Lawton Chiles. For twelve years, Towey was legal counsel to Mother Teresa. In 1990, he lived as a volunteer in a home she ran in Washington for people addicted to drugs or alcohol, many of whom had AIDS. In 1996, Towey founded Aging with Dignity, a Tallahassee organization that promotes better health care for people with terminal illness.

Towey, who took over the job in February 2002, said that in most cases, government regulations already allowed groups affiliated with religions to receive federal money, but either the organizations themselves or the bureaucrats who approved federal grants did not realize it.

"There were perceptions of barriers and governmental hostility," said Towey, a friend of Governor Jeb Bush. "A lot of my work has been a communication effort to say, ‘It's okay, government grant-makers. You're not violating separation of church and state if you give money to a church organization that does job training, as long as the money goes for job training.'"

While some organizations with political clout received money before Bush became president, those without leverage were "harassed locally by some grant official who said, ‘Wait a minute. Either you take that scripture verse off the wall or we'll pull your grant,'" Towey said. "The groups with political muscle received money, but the small groups were intimidated. In many neighborhoods, they're the only groups there."

In other cases, organizations were prohibited from applying "simply because they had a religious name or identity, even though their programs may be turning lives around," Towey said. While a church may control its board, a group that changed its name from St. John's Shelter to John's Shelter would more likely be successful in obtaining federal money.

After Bush's faith-based initiative began encouraging it, federal funds went to local organizations like Exodus Transitional Community in New York; the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center in Perth Amboy, New Jersey; Notre Dame School in Warren, Ohio; and Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago. The Muslim group offers high school equivalency courses and computer training to low-income and minority families. The Jewish medical center provides free health care to those have no insurance and cannot pay. The Protestant-affiliated Exodus group helps prisoners return to society.

Traveling with Bush to visit the programs, Towey got a better understanding of how both faith and Bush's own experience with alcohol addiction play a role in his life.

"You have these perceptions that he is a heartless Republican," Towey said. "I've traveled with Mother Teresa. He's not a saint, of course, but he's a very caring guy. In his private life, he prays. He doesn't hold himself out as some great Christian. He doesn't see himself that way. For him, religion isn't a show. It's intensely personal. You see this when he is talking with addicts. He knows how his recovery was fueled by a faith experience."

The fact that devout Christians were Bush's strongest backers led to charges that the faith-based initiative was a sop to them. But Jewish and Muslim groups were just as happy to receive the money. The fact that Bush rolled out his faith-based initiative in the second week of his presidency suggested how deeply he cared about it.

"Education and faith-based initiatives are the two domestic policy subjects that the president just riffs in speeches," Margaret Spellings, Bush's former domestic policy advisor who is now secretary of Education, told me. "On those two subjects, he seldom sticks to the text of his speeches. He just gets up and emotes. He speaks from the heart. He knows the subject and has his own construct of how it all fits together."

Bush's meetings with those who have been helped by the faith-based initiative would make great photo-ops, but Bush considers them private and refuses to exploit such personal moments. In one such meeting at the Washington Hilton, Bush was introduced to a woman from Liberia who had been left for dead in a stack of bodies during a massacre that was part of the conflict in that country.

When the woman came to America as a refugee, the Catholic Social Agency in Allentown, Pennsylvania, helped her find a job and a place to live. It gave her clothing and arranged for transportation to a facility where she trained to become a nursing assistant. She is now working at a senior care facility. Before Bush's initiative, the agency could not receive federal funds or was discouraged from obtaining them.

"She was pouring out her heart," said Towey, who recently left the White House to become president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He was replaced by Jay F. Hein, who previously ran the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. "She said her grandmother found her and revived her. She was telling the president this in sobs. He didn't say a lot. But at the end of the program he took her aside. She just broke down and put her heard on his shoulder, crying. He knew she needed to cry and be hugged."

"It's like a second hope again," the woman told the conference. "I believe in myself, I am grateful to God."

She turned to Bush.

"Thank you, Mr. President," she said.

"Don't thank me," he said. "Thank America."

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WASHINGTON -- Because of President Bush's faith-based initiative, programs that help the needy and that are affiliated with religious groups now receive more than $2.2 billion a year in federal grants. Before Bush took office, faith-based programs could not get federal...
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Sunday, 17 September 2006 12:00 AM
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