Administration Lauds Initiative
The federal government gave more than $1.1 billion in competitive grants to religious organizations in fiscal 2003 as President Bush’s efforts to support religious charities led to dramatic increases in such grants by key agencies, White House officials said yesterday.
Although the partial figures released by the White House do not cover all agencies or the full gamut of government grants, academic experts said they are the first concrete measure of the success of Bush’s attempts to help religious groups compete for federal funds to operate homeless shelters, soup kitchens, drug treatment centers, job training programs and other services.
“The administration has stuck at it, and the dollars going to faith-based organizations are clearly going up. But in the overall scheme of things, we’re not talking about huge amounts of money here,” said Alan J. Abramson, director of the Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program at the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said five agencies were asked to review 140 competitive grantmaking programs for fiscal 2002 and 2003.
Big increases were reported by the departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development. HHS said it gave $568 million in grants to 680 faith-based organizations in fiscal 2003, a 41 percent jump in the number of recipients and a 19 percent rise in dollars from the prior year. HUD reported $532 million in grants to 765 faith-based groups, a 16 percent increase in recipients and an 11 percent increase in dollars.
The White House also said faith-based groups received about $51 million in competitive grants from the Justice Department, $11 million from the Labor Department and $7 million from the Education Department in fiscal 2003. But it did not reveal how those amounts compared with the previous year’s.
Towey said he sought “the most conservative figures possible” by excluding federal funds that reach religious-affiliated groups through block grants to state and local governments.
“This is just a snapshot. This is like the Mars rover glimpse at federal grantmaking,” he said.
The most welcome news, he added, was a sharp rise in faith-based organizations receiving federal funding for the first time. HHS said it had 129 first-time grantees, a 50 percent increase. HUD reported a 100 percent jump in funding for first-time applicants, from $56 million to $113 million.
“I think that we’re seeing that when the playing field is leveled, faith-based organizations can compete with other nonprofits, but by no means are they getting all the money,” Towey said.
Because bills to bolster funding for these groups have been stalled in Congress, Bush has acted mainly by executive order. Since 2002, many federal agencies have created offices to encourage applications by faith-based groups and have revised regulations to allow them to receive funding even if they engage in religious activity and make religion a qualification for hiring staff. Watchdog groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have accused the administration of infringing the Constitution.
Towey said that Bush “has always talked about maximum transparency in the initiative” and that the figures released by the White House are a step in that direction. But several scholars pointed to gaps in the numbers and said they would like the administration to release more complete data.
While the White House report says the five agencies surveyed gave a total of $1.17 billion in grants to faith-based groups in fiscal 2003, it does not say what increase that represents over the prior year, noted Lisa Montiel, a researcher at the Albany-based Roundtable on Religion and Social Policy.
Carol J. De Vita, an expert on faith-based groups at the Urban Institute, said it is also not clear whether the portion of federal funds received by religious groups is rising. The White House said various agencies awarded from 2 percent (Labor) to 24 percent (HUD) of all their grants to faith-based groups in fiscal 2003. But it did not provide similar percentages for previous years.
Moreover, De Vita said, there have been few studies of the effectiveness of faith-based groups compared with secular nonprofits. “The question is, what is the appropriate measure of success? Is it just getting the money, or what’s been done with the money?” she said.