Leaving Faith Organizations out in the Cold

How Current Conservative Budget-Cut Proposals Undermine Government-Faith Partnerships

Cutting federal funding for poverty programs would cripple the faith-based groups that play a key role in our social safety net, write Annelisa Steeber and Marta Cook.

Alfred Reese wipes down tables at the meals program for Cleveland Catholic Charities at the Bishop Cosgrove Center. Faith-based organizations and houses of worship are a crucial part of our social service network, offering health care, food pantries, day care, counseling services, housing assistance, job assistance, and other programs. (AP/Tony Dejak)
Alfred Reese wipes down tables at the meals program for Cleveland Catholic Charities at the Bishop Cosgrove Center. Faith-based organizations and houses of worship are a crucial part of our social service network, offering health care, food pantries, day care, counseling services, housing assistance, job assistance, and other programs. (AP/Tony Dejak)

For the past four weeks, faith leaders, members of Congress, and more than 36,000 Americans have been fasting. Some are going a day without food while others have not eaten since the fast began on March 28. Through their bold actions they are calling attention to the growing numbers of people in our nation who go hungry every day. And they are advocating for political leaders to do the right thing and spare millions of vulnerable Americans from deep budget cuts that threaten their well-being and lives.

The situation is alarming: In the last five years, the number of people signing up for governmental food assistance has increased by 66 percent. And last month food prices grew faster than at any time since 1974. Our country is now experiencing the highest rate of poverty since 1960—more than 45 million Americans live in poverty, including 15 million children.

As battles in Washington intensify over the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget, faith leaders from across the theological spectrum are speaking with a prophetic voice, charging political leaders to be just and fair. The budget is a moral document, they say, reflecting our nation’s priorities and values. Faith leaders speak from a deeply grounded moral concern—that we are all called, even mandated, to care for our neighbor—but they also speak from experience.

Congregations are on the front lines, witnessing first-hand the deprivation and suffering in their communities. Faith-based organizations deliver much-needed services, often through partnerships with the government. The recent budget for 2012 proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) would shred such services, especially for the elderly, the young, and the poor.

Analysts have shown that two-thirds of the Ryan budget cuts come from programs supporting low-income Americans. President Barack Obama’s proposed budget also makes difficult cuts, even to some crucial poverty-assistance programs. But contrary to Ryan’s it does maintain a commitment to a basic social safety net for our nation.

Faith-government partnerships serve the less fortunate

Faith-based organizations and houses of worship are a crucial part of our social service network, offering health care, food pantries, day care, counseling services, housing assistance, job assistance, and other programs. They have been delivering social services throughout our country’s history. Churches, synagogues, and mosques see needs in their communities and respond. In addition, faith-based organizations such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Jewish Federations, and others work on a larger scale at the local, state, national, and international levels. They have long received government funding for their work in the form of subsidies, grants, tax exemptions, and contracts.

Government partnerships with faith-based organizations have become even more common in recent decades as the federal government has cut back direct services and more faith-based organizations have developed the capacity and expertise to deliver a wide range of services.

It is well understood how churches serve local communities. But it is perhaps less clear how much our country relies on larger faith-based organizations. Lutheran Social Services has roots going back to 1865 in Minnesota. Their Washington, D.C., office reports:

From the beginning, we have tailored our programs to respond to emerging challenges in our neighborhoods. Whether sheltering a family during the Great Depression, welcoming a displaced Vietnamese refugee to America in the 1970’s, or most recently providing a safe space for a child with HIV to connect with other affected children at our Youth Haven Camps, our services stem directly from the needs of the community.

Catholic Charities celebrated 100 years of service in 2010. Through a network of more than 1,700 agencies, Catholic Charities in 2009 served nearly 10 million people nationwide. In the early days their services focused on adoption and financial assistance programs, but now they also serve the developmentally disabled, provide disaster relief, fight human trafficking, advocate for environmental stewardship and protection, and more. Since 1962 local Catholic Charities agencies in Tennessee have been helping refugees find housing and employment.

Following the assistance Catholic Charities USA provided after Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav, and Ike, it was contracted by the federal government to administer disaster case management nationwide. Nearly 70 percent of Catholic Charities’ funding came from government programs in 2009.

There’s also Jewish Federations, a national umbrella organization for more than 300 local chapters. Through these local groups they “raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually for social welfare, social services, and educational needs.”

Over the decades, Jewish Federations has increasingly integrated their services with government services. Today, “Jewish nursing homes derive 76 percent of their annual budget from government funding.” Because of this integration, “cuts at the federal and state levels threaten to change the way services are provided and how federations can support their beneficiary agencies.”

Faith-based organizations also work on the local and international levels. For instance, World Vision, an international humanitarian organization started by evangelicals in 1950, serves 100 million people in nearly 100 countries. Twenty-three percent of World Vision’s budget comes from government grants.

In addition, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, provides services to low-income communities in Chicago and receives funding from the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois, and the federal government. IMAN operates a health clinic and works on criminal justice, youth services, and community redevelopment, among other things.

Conservatives often claim we do not need government services if we have churches to do the same work—presumably without taxpayer money. But the reality is that faith-based groups are often the vehicles through which the government does its work. So slashing government spending is also slashing the budgets of faith-based organizations providing much-needed services. Doing so will seriously cripple their ability to serve, especially since demands on them are increasing because of continued job loss, home loss, and rising prices.

Budget cuts will harm faith-based organizations and local communities

Government spending cuts will hurt faith-based organizations’ efforts in two ways. First, these cuts will reduce their operating budgets. And second, they will also increase the demand on their services by forcing even more people to seek help. Only 7 percent of nonprofits reported in 2010 that the demand for their services decreased. At the same time, only 51 percent said they could meet the demand.

CAP Senior Fellow Donna Cooper and Senior Policy Analyst Joy Moses, both experts on the budget and poverty policy, described budget cuts that would directly harm faith-based organizations in an interview for this article. They include cuts to refugee services, programs that oversee and fund food pantries and soup kitchens, homeless programs, vocational education and training programs, pre-K and Head Start funding, and many more.

Increased numbers of Americans need some kind of basic assistance because the economy is not bouncing back. Catholic Charities reported late last year that “more and more families and individuals are knocking on Catholic Charities’ doors, many for the first time and as a last resort, hoping social services will be their salvation from the looming clutches of poverty.”

Their local agencies are documenting increases in need between 40 percent and 80 percent, including the working poor, middle class, and immigrant families. Joe Mahoney of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Pueblo, says, “We’re simply telling people we don’t have the funds at this time. Our staff has large hearts but the community need is so overwhelming, it is going to be difficult.”

The budgets of social service providers, including faith-based ones, are already squeezed by the Great Recession. It is difficult to imagine more revenue cuts on top of the increased demand. The money strain is very real.

In Chicago experts estimate an 18 percent increase in the homeless population in that city, largely due to decreases in mental health funding. Thresholds, a secular organization, has lost $4.5 million and Lutheran Social Services has lost $1 million. They are forced to turn people away every day.

Thresholds CEO Tony Zipple told CBS Chicago, “It’s a bad deal for taxpayers because it costs much more to treat people in jails and prisons and in and out of emergency rooms and hospitals than it does to provide good community services.”

Nearly all faith-based groups have stories that show increased need and their lack of capacity to meet it. Robert Purham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, TN, says, “Churches simply have not put in their budgets the kind of funding that would be required to feed nine to 10 million people. So it’s dishonest for politicians to shift the responsibility away from the government to the church.”

To be clear, faith leaders are not asking the government to continue spending at an unsustainable level. They understand the need to be financially responsible and prudent. Instead, they are asking members of Congress to live up to the moral standards and core principles on which our nation was founded. Every human being has inherent dignity and worth. We all have certain inalienable rights. And we are connected to each other in good times and bad.

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK—a leading Catholic social justice advocacy organization—said in an interview for this article that the budget battle is more than a war of numbers and words. It is a fight “for the soul of our nation.”

Annelisa Steeber is an intern and Marta Cook is a Research Assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.

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