By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Despite the Bush administration's rhetorical support for religious charities, the amount of direct federal grants to faith-based organizations declined from 2002 to 2004, according to a major new study released yesterday.
White House officials immediately disputed the findings. They said they will release their own figures next month showing an increase in federal funding for religious groups.
The dispute highlighted a lack of independent, widely accepted data about how many federal tax dollars are going to religious organizations, what they are doing with the money and whether they are more, or less, effective than other charities.
Some critics of the President's Faith-Based Initiative have long contended that the administration is shifting who gets money, but not increasing the total amount of federal funding available to shelter the homeless, counsel prisoners and provide other social services.
The study released yesterday "is confirmation of the suspicion I've had all along, that what the faith-based initiative is really all about is de-funding social programs and dumping responsibility for the poor on the charitable sector," said Kay Guinane, director of the nonprofit advocacy program at OMB Watch, a liberal watchdog group in Washington. "It sounds warm and fuzzy, but they've been cutting down the size of the pie all along."
The study by the nonpartisan Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy examined 28,000 grants made by nine federal agencies over three years. It found that religious charities got an unchanging share -- about 18 percent -- of the money awarded each year.
But because the total pie of available funding shrank by more than $230 million over the three years, the slice that went to religious groups also declined, from $670 million in fiscal 2002 to $626 million in fiscal 2004.
At the same time, the study found that the initiative has succeeded in encouraging more religious groups to apply for funding, and the number receiving grants rose almost 15 percent. "Less federal money is being divided into more grants," the study concluded.
In a telephone interview, the study's authors declined to discuss its political implications. Lisa M. Montiel and David J. Wright said the study focused only on direct federal grants, not monies distributed through block grants to states and municipalities, which are several times larger.
The authors also said they did not attempt to determine how much money went to religious organizations before President Bush took office in 2001. They looked only at grant programs that were in existence for all three years covered by the study, Montiel said, because they were trying to get a picture of the "trend line," not a static snapshot of the money given to religious charities in any one year.
H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, accused the study of bias, saying it was "only the latest indication of the Roundtable's agenda in opposition to the president's faith-based initiative."
The study did not count grant-making programs that were created after 2002 and ignored such programs as Head Start, which he said was the second-largest source of federal funds for religious organizations, after the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 202 housing program for the elderly poor.
"They have picked rotten cherries and come up with a rotten pie," Towey said. "They took a very small sample of programs and grants and are drawing conclusions that are completely inaccurate."
Towey said the White House has been collecting growing amounts of data on grants each year, beginning with two federal agencies in 2002, five in 2003, seven in 2004 and 10 in 2005. When it issues its report for 2005 in March, he said, "we'll look at 25,000 grants in just one year" and "will show there's been an increase every year in the category of competitive, nonformula grants for social services."
Several independent researchers who were not involved in the study defended the Roundtable.
Candy S. Hill, senior vice president for social services at Catholic Charities USA, said the study's findings fit with her experience. "It doesn't surprise me, because overall the funding for most social service programs is shrinking," she said. "We're grateful there's a recognition by the administration of the wonderful work that faith-based groups do, but we continue to be concerned about the levels of funding."
Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of social policy studies at the Center for Public Justice, an evangelical Protestant think tank in Annapolis, said the study "gives the lie to alarmists" who think the administration is funneling vast sums to churches.
"Look at the huge percentage of money that continues to go to secular organizations," said Carlson-Thies, who formerly worked in the White House faith-based office. "The image that there's this Bush push that's going to turn the government into a religious apparatus -- if people think that that's what's happening, they're wrong."