February 5, 2001
Faith-Based Initiative Plan Poses Risks to Religious Organizations
An ABC news special entitled Mr. Stossel goes to Washington aired last weekend, documenting waste and inefficiency in government. In one particularly poignant example, the show profiled a woman who started a food kitchen to deliver hot meals to needy families in her small town. She operated with a small budget, using donations of food and money. Area families considered her a godsend, as she often provided the only complete meal they had each day. The success of her efforts, however, was quickly diminished when the federal government began investigating her operation. Because she received some federal funds, she was required to comply with numerous regulations. The stove she used did not have a hood, which federal regulations mandate. Her only choice was to buy a new stove, at prohibitive cost, or stop using her stove altogether. The government refused to make an exception for her, and now she runs a smaller kitchen which delivers only cold bag lunches. Of course, the ultimate victim of the government's shortsighted policy is the local families who once enjoyed hot meals. This example does not represent an isolated case, but rather is typical of the way government regulations harm our citizens.
The ABC expose aired just days before President Bush announced his plan to allow private charities and religious organizations a greater role in delivering social services currently provided mostly by the federal government. He certainly is correct in his assertion that private groups do a better job of running food banks, day care centers, drug treatment centers, and other social programs. I applaud his desire to transfer funds away from government agencies and into the private sector. I certainly disagree with critics who misunderstand the First amendment and view the President's proposal as a sinister endorsement of religion. Bush especially should be credited for offering an alternative to the status quo, because federal agencies simply do a terrible job of providing social services.
The proposal has risks, however. First, the federal welfare state simply may expand in size and scope. Congress seemingly is incapable of reducing spending, instead adding billions to the budget every year. This excessive spending may expand to fund private organizations in addition to current funding for federal agencies. I doubt seriously that savings created by the substitution of efficient private organizations for inefficient federal agencies will ever be reflected in the federal budget. The more likely scenario is that government spending will grow more than ever.
Second, religious organizations risk the sanctity of their faith when they involve themselves with government. The government will have to decide what religious organizations qualify for federal funds, which puts it in the untenable position of deciding which faiths are legitimate. Would the pro-abortion Health and Human Services department ever surrender funds to a strongly pro-life Catholic charity? Would American taxpayers support funding for an organization viewed by many as a cult, if it ran an efficient soup kitchen? These uncomfortable questions suggest that some faiths would be tempted to change their message to win favor with the government. The liberal collectivists have the argument against the President's proposal all wrong: the danger is not that government will be influenced by religion, but rather that religion will be influenced by government.
The better approach is to abide by constitutional strictures and get the federal government completely out of the business of providing social services. Private charities and religious organizations will flourish in this country if we simply get government out of the way. First and foremost, we must exempt such organizations from regulations which constantly thwart their efforts. Second, we must endorse the proposal by President Bush to allow all Americans a deduction for charitable contributions, regardless of whether they itemize deductions or not. The majority of taxpayers apply the standard deduction, and they should enjoy a tax benefit for giving to charity even in small amounts. We should allow a 100% deduction for all contributions, regardless of whether to a standard charity, a charitable foundation or trust, or a religious organization. Finally, we must massively reduce government spending, so that income taxes can be lowered drastically. Americans are charitable by nature, but they rightfully resent losing nearly half their incomes to various levels of government. American charities would see huge increases in their budgets for providing social services if taxes were reduced to sane levels.