‘Faith-Based’ Programs Get Little Oversight, Says Study

The Bush administration’s aggressive push for funding of “faith-based” groups is significantly altering the way states and localities are offering social services, a study from the Urban Institute finds.

In late July, the nonpartisan think tank released an expansive report, “Federal Policy on the Ground: Faith-Based Organizations Delivering Local Services,” on the major block grant programs in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the federal funds provided via the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF).

The 95-page analysis studied grant recipients in Birmingham, Ala., Boston and Denver. A July 28 statement regarding the report noted several key findings, including 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.”

According to the Institute, the percentage of HHS grants to religious groups has not changed significantly since the enactment of the 1996 federal welfare reform law, which contained a “charitable choice” provision encouraging faith-based subsidies. Conversely, the Institute reports, 50 to 70 percent of the newer CCF grants funds controlled by the Bush administration — were awarded to Boston and Denver religious groups, “many of which were congregation based.”

President George W. Bush has made the “faith-based” initiative a major part of his domestic agenda, establishing a White House faith-based office early in his administration. Bush has often argued that religious groups have historically found it difficult to attain government funds for their social services. But the Urban Institute’s study suggests otherwise.

“We found little indication that public officials were hostile to FBOs [faith-based organizations], and we heard few allegations from the FBOs about past or present ill treatment,” the Urban Institute’s report stated.

Fredrica Kramer, one the report’s authors, noted lack of oversight of faith-based operations as a key concern.

“Unless government agencies carefully monitor how faith-based programs use government funding,” she said, “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.”