Can Faith-Based Charities Be an Adequate Substitute for Government?

Mick Mulvaney, the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, speaks to the press about President Trump's budget proposal. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Mick Mulvaney, the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, speaks to the press about President Trump’s budget proposal. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Supporters of Trump’s budget are eager to restore the central role of faith-based organizations in serving the poor—but it’s not clear they can be an adequate substitute for government.

President Trump’s initial budget proposal would end aid for poor families to pay their heating bills, defund after-school programs at public schools, and make fewer grants available to college students. Community block grants that provide disaster relief, aid neighborhoods affected by foreclosure, and help rural communities access water, sewer systems, and safe housing would be eliminated. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, suggested recently that even small amounts of federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to house-bound seniors, may not be justified.

With billions of dollars worth of cuts to federal social services likely ahead, the wars of religion have begun. Bible verses about poverty have suddenly become popular on Twitter, with Republicans and Democrats each claiming to better know how Jesus would think about entitlement spending. While conservatives tend to bring religion into public-policy conversations more than liberals, the valence is often switched when it comes to the budget: Liberals eagerly quote the Sermon on the Mount in support of government spending, while conservatives bristle at the suggestion that good Christians would never want cuts.

But it’s more than posturing. If government steps back, religious organizations may need to step up. Much of the infrastructure and money involved in the charitable provision of social services is associated with religion, whether it’s a synagogue’s homeless-sheltering program or a large aid organization such as Catholic Relief Services. People like the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner believe these private services could potentially be expanded even further. While some government programs should be scrapped altogether, he argued, “other programs may well be replaceable by private charity—either dollar-for-dollar, or more likely, they can be done more effectively and efficiently.”

I spoke with roughly a half dozen scholars from a variety of ideological backgrounds who study religious giving, and they were all skeptical that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith-based organizations could serve as an adequate substitute for the government in providing for the needy and vulnerable. The scale and structure of government services, the sectarian nature of religious programs, and the declining role of religion in public life are all challenges, they argued; if anything, states would have to step in to take on the burden, or some current services would go away entirely. The budget debate may seem like a wonky back-and-forth about economic forecasts. But it probes long-standing questions about how society should provide for people’s needs. As David Campbell, a political-science professor at the University of Notre Dame, put it, “No religion is on the sidelines when it comes to caring for the poor.”

People’s views on budget questions are often determined by their political beliefs, said Campbell. Whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, “religious people across the spectrum would agree the poor need to be helped.” The question is who should do the helping, and how much government should be involved.

In their private lives, religious Americans are extremely generous. According to the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University, donations to congregations, denominations, mission board, and TV and radio ministries account for roughly one-third of all annual giving in the U.S. The impact of this money is difficult to calculate, but it’s large: In 2001, the University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan tried to tally the financial value of all congregational social services in Philadelphia, estimating that it added up to roughly $247 million. When all social-service organizations with a religious mission are taken into account, the value of those services in many communities would likely be much higher.

These services aren’t exactly private, however. According to Oklahoma Representative Steve Russell, who testified on religious-freedom issues before Congress last spring, more than 2,000 federal contracts are awarded to religious organizations each year. If programs like the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants are cut, as Trump has proposed, many religious organizations would lose major parts of their operating budgets. This kind of federal-spending cut can have tangible consequences: World Relief, an evangelical organization that works with the federal government on refugee resettlement, cut 140 staffers and closed five offices earlier this year when the Trump administration announced a sharp decrease in the number of refugees that will be accepted into the United States.

A lot of religious giving also doesn’t go toward helping the needy. “The vast majority of religious congregation budget [money] is spent on in-house expenses: clergy, building, materials,” said Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Some congregations have more outreach ministry and social services than others. But in almost all cases, it ends up being a small part of the budget, just because it costs so much to run a congregation.”

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Emma Green