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President Bush has introduced a new federal initiative to encourage faith-based services. Its constitutionality will be challenged. However, the interaction of government, politics and faith-based human services is not new. Before the English Poor Laws of 1601, all services for the poor, dependent children, the mad, the old and the disabled were faith-based, largely the church's responsibility.

The English Poor Laws of 1601 established the principle of public responsibility for those unable to care for themselves. Parliament gave responsibility to local government because the church was both unwilling and unable to cope with the magnitude of the problem of the poor and the dispossessed.

The Poor Laws, brought here from England by the colonists, frequently stirred controversy. Groups opposed to tax-paid relief claimed that it "pauperized" the recipients. They favored giving help only to those so in need that they were willing to enter the terrible poorhouse. They also opposed church alms.

In the mid-19th century, states required that children be removed from county poorhouses,where they lived under unconscionable conditions. With nowhere else to send abandoned and neglected children, Protestant service agencies sent poor children to homes in the West on "orphan trains."

Catholics were appalled because many Irish-Catholic immigrant children were picked up off the streets of New York and sent West. They argued that the children were exploited for their labor and would not be brought up Catholic. So Catholics established Catholic children's institutions as a protection against Protestantism.

Catholic and Protestant institutions received public funds to care for children on a per capita basis. The cost for caring for children increased rapidly. The sectarian homes were unregulated. Investigators claimed that "It did not make much difference to them how many children they received so long as their board was paid by the city. In fact, the larger the number of children, the smaller per capita cost to the institution."

As they lobbied for increases in the per capita fee, some faith-based institutions were not above turning a profit and using the excess funds for new buildings or to reduce their debt. In 1894, another investigating commission concluded, "In some cases, the care of dependent children might be said to have become a profitable business."

As public appropriations to private, faith-based children's services grew, public services were neglected. The consequences were untold suffering, and the sacrifice of many lives, particularly in "infants' hospitals."

By the 1930s, professionally staffed Protestant, Catholic and Jewish child welfare agencies dominated the fields of foster care placement and residential care. Even though most of their budgets came from public funds, Jewish and Catholic agencies and residential centers were not required to take the largely Protestant African-American children; white-dominated Protestant agencies discriminated openly or set low quotas for African-American children.

Despite the growing number of African-American families in New York City, the private Jewish and Protestant agencies refused to serve African-American children, especially those who were delinquent. Only two Catholic institutions in New York City accepted delinquent African-American adolescents.

Despite pressure to stop discriminating, the sectarian agencies had sufficient political clout to gain a legislative exception that allowed the agencies to use religion as a criterion for providing services. Jewish and Catholic agencies were off the hook because there were few African-American Jews or Catholics. A number of Protestant agencies refused to desegregate. They refused public funds and served white families who could pay their fees.

In 1984, the New York City welfare system was sued and found to be in collusion with the private sectarian agencies to discriminate racially. Little happened because the agencies dragged their feet; they were taken to court again in 1990. Perhaps conditions are better today, but we continue to have a two-tiered system of private and public child and adolescent residential settings that are largely segregated by race.

This brief excursion through history raises a number of red flags. Faith-based agencies should not be exempt from fiscal oversight nor health and safety regulations. Providing services through faith-based agencies is no guarantee that the public need will be met, nor that the agencies won't exploit public resources for their own benefit.

In the past, faith-based organizations had as a major goal teaching religious beliefs to children, or to convert children and adults. That is a perfectly legitimate goal, but is it a legitimate goal when public funds are used for that purpose?

Exempting private sectarian agencies from anti-discrimination regulation resulted in tax supported segregation by religion and by race, without regard to public need. Funding faith-based agencies may well contribute to fragmentation rather than to unity. Because faith-based agencies have political clout, resources for public services may also suffer.

Giving public funds to faith-based organizations may well defeat their purposes. They will become dependent on the funds and will use professional staffs. Their own fund raising and ability to involve their congregations may diminish as well.

There is no systematic evidence, aside from anecdotes and self-serving claims, that faith-based services are any better (or worse) than secular services. President Bush, who talks about accountability and measurement in the public schools, does not emphasize accountability in human services.

It is historically true that public subsidies to private agencies provided a political constituency for those funds. Bush received only 9 percent of the African-American vote. In a national election, the Republicans are spotting the Democrats something like 8 million votes. If Bush gives funds to African-American faith-based services, is he thinking that ministers will use their pulpits to extol the virtues of compassionate conservatism and the Republican party?

They will have stakes in receiving funds to support their churches and their staffs. Perhaps it is a good thing that African-American churches will receive support, but will that mean less attention to pressing issues of discrimination, housing, employment, fairness in the justice system and health care?

MURRAY LEVINE is a distinguished service professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo.

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