Fighting poverty in Jesus' name...
and with taxpayer funds?

By Roy Maynard

On the second anniversary of federal welfare reform, many say that the most effective poverty-fighting organizations are faith-based. Some in Washington actually want to help, but critics worry that the help comes with unacceptable strings attached.

When Don Taylor strides into a room, there's no mistaking his military background. If the close-cropped hair and review-stand posture aren't enough to show that he's a retired U.S. Army colonel, then the West Point ring on his right hand closes the case.

He's an odd pick to head Mississippi's Department of Human Services-and his three-year tenure in the position, at the appointment of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, has been nothing if not controversial. Controversy doesn't bother him, he says. He's mission-oriented, and the mission is to improve lives.

On this hot summer afternoon, he pulls two pastors into his office with a handshake. "Brother Stan, Brother Ron, good to see you." He beams at Ron Moore and Stan Wachtstetter, who run the state's groundbreaking Faith and Families program. They're something of a secret weapon. Despite cries at the outset from the ACLU and advocacy groups, for two years Mr. Taylor has deployed the program to pair welfare recipients with church congregations. The program has continued to build, to the point where now 850 churches in the state are mentoring more than a thousand "clients"-current or former welfare recipients.

"I'm a pragmatist," says Mr. Taylor. "I go with what works. And I know that faith works where nothing else will. The government can't dry every tear, can't sweep every sidewalk, can't hire every worker. And it can't solve any problem as long as it keeps confusing material poverty with behavioral poverty."

And that's why Faith and Families, even when it was still a vague proposal advocated by Gov. Fordice in 1994, appealed to him. Faith and Families is essentially a wise military move: Instead of having one social worker attempting to keep up with 300 clients, one client now has a congregation of usually 200 or more caring people backing him or her up.

"Here's what that looks like," explains Mr. Moore, the black pastor of the Stronger Hope Baptist Church in Jackson. "The Van Winkle Baptist Church, a white, conservative church, enrolled and we paired them with a young, black single mother. They took a look at her needs. To get a job, she needed transportation. No problem-one of the deacons said, 'I got an old car.' She needed child care. No problem-the church had a child-care center. If the car breaks down, she's not left on foot and out of work again-there's always gonna be a mechanic in a church."

And the real difference, he says in a quick, cadenced voice, is that it's not an impersonal bureaucracy-the woman is "being cared for by her church family. They're in the trench with her."

Mr. Taylor smiles-"I read all the [social service] materials, I go to the conferences. They're full of smarmy acronyms. But at the bottom line, I know this is why we're way ahead in moving people off the rolls."

His smile broadens when he's asked about his authority to blend the sacred and the secular in such a way. "By the time Charitable Choice came along, we were already doing this," he says. "I've always worked on the assumption it's easier to get forgiveness than permission. That's why we're so far out ahead."

The "Charitable Choice" he's talking about is Sen. John Ashcroft's plan for helping the rest of the country catch up with Mississippi in moving families off the welfare rolls. Two years ago, as part of the landmark welfare-reform package signed into law by President Clinton on Aug. 22, 1996, a provision inserted by the Missouri Republican made it inviting for more churches and other faith-based organizations to receive government funds for their physical and spiritual anti-poverty work.

Mr. Ashcroft knew churches and other ministries could offer help that state agencies could not provide on their own-both in terms of quantity and quality. But he also understood that as long as cumbersome regulations came attached to government money, most religious organizations would shy away from helping to shoulder the welfare burden. As he put it during the debate, a pastor "shouldn't have to climb up on the steeple and remove the cross," in order to help the needy.

To prevent that, the Charitable Choice law included guarantees designed to protect the religious identity and mission of welfare providers, even when they accepted state funds to carry on their work. Among those guarantees:

To the ACLU and other liberal groups, such provisions did not simply guarantee the integrity of faith-based welfare providers; they amounted to a state "establishment" of religion for down-and-out aid recipients forced to get a sermon along with their supper. To no one's surprise, they are suing to have the law declared unconstitutional. "Nothing advances a religious mission more than paying someone to walk into a church, not to mention what might go on once you're in there," says ACLU lawyer Julie Segal. "There will be some element of coercion there, even if it's subtle coercion."

Mr. Ashcroft insists that Charitable Choice prevents coercive religion by requiring states to contract with secular service providers as well, allowing welfare recipients to pick the program that works best for them-and accept the terms of that program. Additionally, a crucial but sometimes overlooked clause in the law prohibits service providers from using government money to "proselytize" those who turn to them for aid. That means that federal funds may not be used to pay for worship services or direct evangelism.

Ironically, the anti-proselytizing clause has made almost no one happy. Secularizing groups such as People for the American Way and the ACLU are not convinced it will protect people from religious strong-arming. Meanwhile, some Christians wondered how any faith-based organization can agree to muzzle the gospel message in exchange for government money.

Joe Loconte, a welfare reform expert at the Heritage Foundation (see sidebar), has seen firsthand how public funding can change the identity of historically religious organizations. In a major study of Massachusetts's sprawling welfare system, Mr. Loconte found that faith-based charities often suffered from years of reliance on government funds. Catholic Charities of Boston, for instance, gets 62 percent of its $28 million budget from state and federal sources. Founded in 1903 to ensure a religious education for Catholic orphans placed in non-Catholic homes, the organization today has almost no discernible religious mission. Instead, it initiates and terminates programs at the whim of federal funders and hires properly credentialed "experts" with no regard to their religious beliefs.

"The temptation to become dependent on government funds is always going to be there," Mr. Loconte concludes. "Ongoing, sustained, significant support by government cannot be good for faith-based providers. It sets up these groups for compromise."

Despite his misgivings, Mr. Loconte believes the Ashcroft provision broke important new legal ground by recognizing at last "the distinct, unique contribution made by faith-based organizations.... Charitable Choice is important because it codifies protections for faith-based charities for the first time."

With more churches and ministries beginning to test the effectiveness of those legal protections, Mr. Ashcroft is now seeking to extend Charitable Choice to other areas of government assistance, including housing, substance abuse, abstinence education, and child welfare services. (The original bill covered only Temporary Aid for Needy Families, the major cash assistance program designed to move poor families from the welfare roles to the workforce.)

Others in Congress are now trying to pass new legislation that builds on the legal protections of Charitable Choice without requiring language to bar proselytizing. The logic goes like this: Since government money always comes with strings attached, why not by-pass the government entirely? If more money flowed directly to faith-based charities-without being filtered through the federal bureaucracy-then the charities could expand their services without becoming dependent on Uncle Sam and without knuckling under to his restrictions.

The key to that scenario is tax credits. Instead of sending the welfare portion of their taxes to Washington, taxpayers could donate directly to local, poverty-fighting charities they believed in. By writing those donations off their 1040 forms, taxpayers would keep their charitable donations in their local communities and keep Washington bureaucrats out of the loop completely.

One model for accomplishing that is the American Community Renewal Act (ACRA), introduced earlier this year by Reps. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.). The bill would, among other things, offer a tax credit of 75 cents for every dollar contributed to local poverty-fighting organizations. To qualify, taxpayers would also have to volunteer personally with the charity, thus creating a greater sense of "ownership" in solving local problems. The tax savings-up to $200 a year for single filers-would come right off the bottom line of the federal 1040 form.

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) offers a slightly different approach. His Giving Incentive and Volunteer Encouragement Act (GIVE) attempts to increase donations dramatically by allowing individuals to deduct 120 percent of their charitable contributions from their federal taxes. As a tax deduction, rather than a tax credit, the savings would come off total taxable income, rather than the bottom line. Mr. Souder would also allow non-itemizers to deduct their charitable donations in excess of $1,000 and extend the deadline for donations to April 15, much the same as IRA contributions.

Although Republican leaders in the House of Representatives support such innovative approaches to poverty-fighting, some worry that ACRA and GIVE would undermine efforts to change fundamentally the tax system by implementing a flat tax or national sales tax. They argue that tax incentives should be implemented at the state level, allowing the federal government to get out of the business of using tax policy to encourage some behaviors while discouraging others.

Some states are responding already. Arizona, for instance, offers a charitable tax credit for residents who increase their year-to-year giving. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is considering a bill that would allow a 50 percent tax credit on every dollar given to charity-up to 25 percent of a resident's total state tax bill.

Whatever shape it may eventually take-state or federal, tax credit or tax deduction-Republicans insist further reform is coming next year, assuming they maintain control of Congress. Churches and ministers that have learned the joy of giving a cup of water in the Savior's name will continue to do so regardless of what happens in Washington. But political developments will affect their opportunity to expand programs.

Copyright 1998 World Magazine. Used by permission.