OVER THE last three weeks, the Bush administration has taken important steps that, together, should advance the president's volunteer service agenda, increase public and private support for community-serving religious organizations, and make federal social welfare programs work better and cost less. First, last Thursday, President Bush announced his support for the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act, or CARE, a Senate bill to aid charitable organizations, both religious and secular. His Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, of which I was then head, began work on the package in July, but the measure was recast last fall in response to new realities. In the wake of September 11, and as America rebounds from the recession, street-level Samaritans who mobilize volunteers, sponsor day care, run homeless shelters, lead housing rehabilitation projects, offer drug treatment, help ex-prisoners find jobs, shelter battered women, and perform other civic good works have faced growing demands with shrinking coffers. As unveiled last week, CARE would restore for two years funding for social services block grants to the states, used mainly for child care and family aid; create new tax breaks for citizens and corporations that give to charity; and encourage religious groups to serve civic purposes by protecting their right to receive public grants for social programs without having to remove religious art or symbols from the buildings where the programs are housed. Together with other recent legislation--like the human services bill signed in January, which created a mentoring program for prisoners' children--CARE advances the president's compassion agenda. It immediately attracted eight Senate co-sponsors, half from each party. Already, however, one hears assorted criticisms of CARE. Let me address two that come from the right and two from the left. On the right, some assert that by backing CARE and, more generally, by tethering the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to his new volunteer service initiative, the USA Freedom Corps, the president has retreated from his promise to allow small community ministries, if they so choose, to compete to administer federally funded social welfare programs on the same basis as all other nonprofit providers of those services. Not so. The faith-based agenda was always allied with national service. The president saw to it that the Corporation for National and Community Service under former Indianapolis mayor Steven Goldsmith worked closely with the faith-based office. As every study shows, the comparative advantage of local community-serving congregations (churches, synagogues, and mosques) is their ability to mobilize volunteers and work through inter-faith, religious/secular, and public/private partnerships. So, from day one, the community initiative and the broader agenda for volunteer service were linked. Another complaint about CARE from the right is that it omits a provision of the "faith bill" passed by the House in mid-July that would ostensibly have permitted faith-based organizations receiving public funds to discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring practices, overriding any state and local laws to the contrary. Well, there was a "beliefs and tenets" provision to this effect in the first draft of the House bill, but Republican leaders of the House Judiciary Committee struck it from the bill in June. Besides, check the public record. The White House consistently maintained that we should neither add to nor subtract from pertinent existing civil rights and other laws. Thus, we defended the existing rights of religious organizations to take religion into account in hiring as provided by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as reinforced by a 1972 statute, and as reaffirmed by a 9-0 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The so-called ministerial exemption afforded under current laws is limited, and never need be invoked except by religious organizations with 15 or more full-time paid employees. The vast majority of community-serving congregations have nowhere near 15 paid full-time anything, and many volunteers come from outside the congregation and even outside the faith. Meanwhile, critics on the left claim that, like the House bill before it, CARE gives faith-based organizations "special treatment" and would permit them to use public funds not only for social services, but for worship services. Untrue. All drafts of the House bill, including the final one, featured black-letter language forbidding any use of public funds for sectarian worship, religious instruction, or proselytizing. This language mirrored that in the "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton. In 1996 as today, most people, including most religious conservatives, supported that prohibition, and even sought to strengthen it. The other anti-CARE gripe on the left is that the bill provides "little new money" for social welfare needs, and is merely short-term anyway. Apparently we have now reached the point where $10 billion dollars over two years isn't real money. But in addition to all that, what made the president's faith-based agenda truly important a year ago, and what makes it compelling still, is its potential to help radically reform federal social welfare programs. This brings me to the second positive development of the past three weeks, namely, the president's effort, led by Office of Management and Budget director Mitch Daniels, to institute real performance-based budgeting across the federal bureaucracy. The president's first budget contained strong rhetorical nods in this direction, but his latest budget makes it official: OMB will be prodding the agencies to get serious about performance, not just process. This comes not a moment too soon. The federal government is spending more and more on social programs but has virtually no data to tell us whether, as a result of all that spending, any kids actually attain literacy, any addicts actually get off hard drugs, any teenagers actually avoid another pregnancy out of wedlock, any ex-prisoners actually find jobs, and so on. Most of the hundreds of billions of dollars that Washington spends on social welfare services are administered through grants to nonprofit organizations and other government-by-proxy agents. But these grants go, year in, year out, mainly to large nonprofits that even after a decade or more in the system have never been required to produce an ounce of evidence on their actual performance. One major culprit is the block grant. As more federal social spending has been block-granted, spending has not declined, but our ability to know where the money goes--let alone what civic results follow--has arguably been weakened. Block grants often amount to little more than spending dollars Washington doesn't really have, for purposes it hasn't specified, with results that can't truly be measured or monitored. The Bush White House is now determined to challenge this. A performance audit of five social service agencies completed by the faith-based initiatives office in August 2001, Unlevel Playing Field, identified the problems; the goal now is to move federal social service dollars away from low- or no-performance grantees and toward high-performance grantees, which I believe will prove to be those rooted in communities. TWO GOOD examples of the kinds of programs that should benefit are those the president visited in Philadelphia last July 4, namely, the Youth Education for Tomorrow (YET) literacy program, and the Amachi program for mentoring prisoners' children. Washington spends billions of dollars a year on all manner of after-school education programs targeted on low-income populations. The bipartisan education bill the president signed last month will add billions to this pile. But it will all be largely wasted unless something gives, for the mega-billions spent thus far have failed to dent an illiteracy rate of over 50 percent in some urban public schools. More than 100,000 school children in Philadelphia read below grade level. They have after-school programs galore to attend, but few of these programs (a) seek out children who read well below "basic," (b) objectively and routinely measure pupil progress, (c) are community-anchored, and so facilitate pupil attendance and parental involvement, and (d) follow "best practices" (like linking oral language/vocabulary and reading; assessing teacher performance; and cross-lacing professional teachers with neighborhood volunteers). The government grantees get the same sock of public cash whether or not they follow these ABCs. But performance-based budgeting with teeth could force more federal funds into programs like the YET centers. Seed-funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, YET was developed by my former colleagues at Public/Private Ventures. It began in 2000. In its first nine months, 31 YET centers served nearly 900 school-age children who were, on average, reading more than two years behind grade level. About 80 percent of the children were African American, 75 percent were poor enough to receive free school lunches, 60 percent were in grades 1-5, and 20 percent were in high school. YET works with churches, Catholic schools, other faith-based groups, and public schools. Typically, classes are held in church basements after school for 90 minutes four days a week through the school year, and there is a summer program option. The results? Children who attended YET centers 100 days or more vaulted 1.9 years in reading ability, while YET kids who came fewer than 100 days registered an average gain of "only" 1.1 grades. The average YET pupil was a third-grader who entered the program reading at first-grade level and, after just 60 classes, was already nearly at the level of second grade. If performance standards for continued federal funding of after-school literacy programs are set at the YET levels, watch thousands of longtime grantees from coast to coast melt away, making room for community-serving congregations and other local groups to show what they can do by improving, for real, the life prospects of children who need to learn to read. Likewise, there are scores of "youth development" programs funded by Washington across numerous agencies. But the record of federal funding is a sad mess, mostly disregarding the solid best-practices literature on how to run mentoring programs to yield desirable results--better school performance, less illicit drug use, and so on. Rather than splashing "youth development" dollars here, there, and everywhere, Washington should seek to fund only performance-accredited programs, including public/private and religious/secular ones that target the neediest young people. Amachi is one such program, its name a West African word meaning "Who knows but what God has brought us through this child." Former Philadelphia mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., a Baptist minister, developed the program. Working with citywide networks of churches, with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, with prison authorities, inmates, and inmates' families, and enjoying the support of Philadelphia's present mayor, John Street, Amachi mobilized nearly 500 mentors for as many prisoners' children in its first year. Research evaluating the impact of Amachi on the children and their communities is only just beginning, but the preliminary evidence is uniformly encouraging. Also crucial, all of the Amachi program's partners are eager to know how effective their work has been. Contrast that with federally funded youth development programs that avoid performance audits and impact evaluations. Washington should direct funds only to organizations that are open to having their funding contingent on real performance reviews. Rather than attempt to gain control of the federal social welfare leviathan by, over time, redirecting tax dollars away from nonprofits that don't get results and toward those that do, some libertarians suggest simply voucherizing the whole federal social welfare budget. Indeed, the fact that CARE, unlike the House bill, does not direct more welfare programs to work through vouchers is a further criticism of the Senate bill leveled by some conservatives. The voucher visionaries fail to recognize that there is, in fact, no practical way to voucherize many federal social programs, that few of these programs operate under statutes that provide for "indirect disbursement arrangements," and that, alas, few smaller community-serving organizations, religious and secular, would benefit either from vouchers or any but the most narrowly targeted tax credits. Grass-roots groups generally serve clients on a rolling basis, with no stable "client lists." Their clients are disproportionately children, young people, and families that fall through the cracks of Medicaid and other large programs. And, since they do not advertise on television or raise money by direct mail, they tend to benefit least from tax incentives to encourage giving. And it's clear that all-out voucherizing is a political non-starter. Still, to be a more realistic reform strategy than vouchers, performance-based budgeting will need determined backing well beyond OMB. It will require vigilance, notably, from the president's strong new appointees to lead the key agencies: Jim Towey at the faith-based office, John Bridgeland at the new USA Freedom Corps, and Jay Lefkowitz at the Domestic Policy Council. Support on Capitol Hill is also essential. Last July, liberal Democrats were in danger of being seen as the anti-God squad when they thoughtlessly trashed the president's faith-based agenda. Luckily for them, they were restrained by New Democrats such as Senator Joe Lieberman. But today it is conservative Republicans who are in danger of appearing viscerally opposed to government-backed volunteer mobilization efforts, mindlessly unmoved by the president's call to public service, and stubbornly set against centrist legislation in this social policy arena, to the point that they risk being perceived as less supportive of the president's compassion agenda than even some Democrats. The president is keeping faith, and those in his own party should keep faith with him, too. Contributing editor John J. DiIulio Jr. is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and directs the University of Pennsylvania's Fox Leadership Program.
THE MAGAZINE: From the February 18 Issue
Bush Keeps the Faith
OVER THE last three weeks, the Bush administration has taken important steps that, together, should advance the president's volunteer service agenda, increase public and private support for community-serving religious organizations, and make federal social welfare programs work better and cost less. First, last Thursday, President Bush announced his support for the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act, or CARE, a Senate bill to aid charitable organizations, both religious and secular.