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Study Peers Behind the Scenes at Federal Funding of Faith-Based Groups

Document date: July 28, 2005
Released online: July 28, 2005

Contact: Thomas Mentzer, (202) 261-5627, tmentzer@ui.urban.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 28, 2005—A new study concludes that Bush administration efforts to expand faith-based contracting via targeted initiatives are changing the nature of social services supported directly with federal funds far more than has legislation passed in the mid-1990s.

The study is the first in-depth look at the major block grant programs in the Department of Health and Human Services with legislated Charitable Choice provisions, as well as at discretionary programs funded under the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF).

The study, from the nonpartisan Urban Institute, also finds that many state and local policies lack effective oversight of such dimensions as religious content and program participants' ability to choose alternatives to faith-based service providers.

Formal monitoring of faith-based programs receiving federal funds was generally restricted to financial audits, according to the report, which noted that "attention to the faith content of programs was likely to be slight or serendipitous."

"Faith-based organizations play a vital role in the social safety net, and secular programs can learn a lot from them," said Fredrica Kramer, a research consultant with the Institute's Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population. Kramer was lead author of the report, "Federal Policy on the Ground: Faith-Based Organizations Delivering Local Services." She was joined by Kenneth Finegold, Carol J. De Vita, and Laura Wherry.

"Unless government agencies carefully monitor how faith-based programs use government funding, we can't know how religious content affects services or whether safeguards are in place to protect those who may not be able to speak for themselves, such as children and participants in court-ordered treatment."

So-called Charitable Choice provisions, first incorporated in the 1996 welfare overhaul, aimed to increase faith-based entities' receipt of public funding without sacrificing their religious character. President George W. Bush later made funding faith-based groups a centerpiece of his domestic agenda, establishing faith-based centers in the White House and cabinet departments, and creating new discretionary programs such as HHS's Compassion Capital Fund.

The study focused on government contracting with faith-based organizations in three demographically and geographically diverse cities: Birmingham, Ala., Boston, and Denver. The report is based on more than 70 face-to-face interviews with service providers and federal, state, and local officials, along with visits to more than 25 faith-based programs between October 2004 and May 2005.

Key findings:

  • Contracting with faith-based organizations under block grants has changed little since Charitable Choice began, ranging from zero to about 20 percent of total contracts in 2004. In contrast, about 50 to 70 percent of grants in the newer Compassion Capital initiatives in Boston and Denver went to faith-based groups, many of which were congregation based.
  • Expressions of faith by service providers were considerably more prominent in programs supported by CCF initiatives than those funded under block grants. Prayer, Bible study, or "Christ-centered" curricula are central to programs of some groups receiving federal funds, while others emphasize the similarities of their services to those of secular organizations.
  • Considerable uncertainty exists about how the requirement to notify clients of their right to an alternative provider is being implemented, or even who is ultimately responsible for such notification.
  • Contrary to administration statements, state and local officials welcomed participation from faith-based groups but found many lacked the capacity to meet government contracting requirements.

"Federal Policy on the Ground: Faith-Based Organizations Delivering Local Services," by Fredrica D. Kramer, Kenneth Finegold, Carol J. De Vita, and Laura Wherry, was funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The report, part of the Assessing the New Federalism project's study of the devolution of responsibility for social programs from the federal government to states, is available online at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?id=311197.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice | Governing | Nonprofits | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net

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