Faith‐​Based Charities on the Federal Dole?


Before he became president, George W. Bush used to say, "Not every good ideashould be a federal government program." It is advice he should havefollowed before he announced his new plan to distribute billions of dollarsin federal funds to private and religious charities over the next 10 years.

No one denies that private charities, especially faith-based ones, cantransform lives and help lift people out of poverty and despair. Indeed,private charities are more effective than government welfare programs infulfilling these roles. It seems natural, therefore, for President Bush towant to encourage these groups. But in mixing government and charity, herisks undermining the things that have made private charity effective.

Government standards and regulations intended to ensure accountability andquality care are attached to government grants and contracts. In the end,what these rules ensure is nothing more than waste and major headaches forfaith-based charities. Charities will have to prove that they are not usinggovernment funds for proselytizing and other exclusively religiousactivities.

That means government regulators will be snooping through their books,checking for compliance. The potential for government meddling is great. Buteven if the regulation is not abused, it will require a redirection ofscarce resources away from charitable activities and toward administrativefunctions. Officials of these charities may end up spending more timereading the Federal Register than the Bible.

Besides, why should faith-based charities eschew proselytizing and strictlyreligious functions? There is a reason for the "faith" in "faith-based"charities. These organizations believe that helping people requires morethan food or a bed. It requires addressing deeper spiritual needs. It isabout God. Yet, in the end, Bush's proposal may transform private charitiesfrom institutions that change people's lives to providers of services—agovernment program in a clerical collar. Call it "compassionate biggovernment conservatism."

There is a more profound threat to the identity and mission of thesecharities. If the history of welfare proves anything, it is that governmentmoney is as addictive as any narcotic. Ironically, therefore, given thatmany private charities are dedicated to fighting welfare dependency,government funding may quickly become a source of dependency for thecharities themselves. Lobbying for, securing, and retaining that funding canbecome the organization's top priority.

Many of our largest charities, such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran SocialServices and the Jewish Federations, already receive more money from thegovernment than from private donations. These groups also run largeprofessional lobbying machines in Washington. In many ways they have becomeanother special interest at the trough of federal largess. Surely, we do notwant to put charities on the dole.

Furthermore, government funding is antithetical to the nature of charity.After all, the essence of private charity is its voluntary—notcoerced—nature. Individuals help one another through love of neighbor. Taxmoney is based on coercion. There is neither compassion nor love behind agrant of money forcibly taken from taxpayers who may have no desire tosupport the charity in question.

There is no reason to take these risks. Private charity is thriving inAmerica. We are the most generous nation on earth. Every year, Americanscontribute more than $150 billion to charity. In addition, more than half ofall American adults perform volunteer work. That time and effort is worthmore than another $200 billion. And that does not include the countlessdollars and time given to family members, neighbors and others outside theformal charity system. A few extra dollars from Washington will add littleto this amazing success story.

Mr. President, private charity is a good idea. But please don't make afederal program out of it.