Faith-Based Welfare Reform: A Constitutional Crises
The Smaller Government Agenda
present welfare reform movement is the historical offspring of a small
government movement that began during the Ragan presidency.
Since then it has been a mainstream bipartisan theme.
“Reducing the size of government”, “lowering the costs of
doing government business”, “eliminating bureaucratic layering”,
“doing more with less”, and finally “reinventing government” have
become the politically correct manner of speech.
After the cold war, reengineering of government programs and their
associated bureaucracies, budgetary reductions, and reductions in military
and civil service manning were economically legitimate causes to a degree.
Now, two decades later,
small-government politics have snowballed into a state of overkill that is
increasingly dangerous to the long run interests of the nation.
Few would argue that an overly large government is ever a good
thing. The larger and more
complex the bureaucracy the greater the drain on tax dollars with likely
diminishing value added. On
the other hand, unreliable and ineffective stewardship of vital functions
and services is the certain cost of an overly lean bureaucracy.
The issue for every era is determining what the appropriate balance
time, small government politics have dramatically altered the boundaries
between government and private sector in all domains from national defense
to who hauls your garbage. Whatever else has happened, the agenda across
the board has been to reduce the government workforce to the bare minimum
and farm its core products and services out to the private sector.
Justification for disenfranchisement hinges on the popular assumption that
government bureaucracy is always inherently costly and inefficient.
Therefore, as the rhetoric goes, much of the work typically
assigned to government is accomplished more economically and efficiently
with a competitive system of contractor agencies that supply the requisite
manpower and management infrastructure.
problem is that bureaucracy is still bureaucracy regardless of whether
it’s composed of a large but coherent civil service, or a workforce
supplied by a plethora of private sector contractors.
The American taxpayer is stuck with the bill regardless of who does
the work. All other things being equal, smaller government really
doesn’t mean anything if the costs of sustainment aren’t reduced as
well. For each contract
worker, the government must pay the contractor agency enough money to
cover a competitive wage, employee benefit package, administrative
expenses, and a satisfactory net profit for the firm's ownership.
Unlike a civil service bureaucracy, private sector contractors are
inherently profit driven in spite of the public interests involved.
Considering all this, the assumption that private sector
contracting always magically reduces costs or improves the quality of
government funded products and services, is a highly conjectural if not a
completely false. Regardless
of these dangers and limitations, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were notorious
for disenfranchising the government infrastructure in favor of private
sector interests. Undoubtedly,
there are instances in science, engineering, and technology where private
sector involvement in government business is both legitimate and
essential. Still, that
doesn’t make it the proper shoe in all or even most circumstances.
Nor does it mean that the private sector should hold the
administrative hammer in any case. Whatever
the inherent limitations, the civil service is the backbone of our
government infrastructure, providing a stable continuity of stewardship
even as political fads and elected officials come and go.
Many government programs, both defense related and domestic, are
essential to the long run interests of the nation even though the costs
are substantial. Moreover,
there are domestic programs that are civilly or culturally sensitive.
They need to remain inside government to protect the nation against
private sector monopolies and to insure the quality and impartiality of
the services rendered. In spite of the political rhetoric to the contrary,
the public welfare system is a notable case in point.
brings the discussion back to the central question asked earlier in this
commentary. How did an agenda
of private sector contracting get entangled with the PRWORA reform
movement in the first place? The
brutally direct answer is smaller government politics in the service of
private sector pork barreling (note).
In turn, the issue of “charitable choice” got involved because
of an opportunistic agenda inside the social conservative establishment.
First, there was the claim that a welfare system exclusively
administered by secular organizations would become a safe haven for
secular humanism, the archrival of the theocratic right.
This notion was bogus because the contract secular workers would be
required to perform their duties just as if they were civil servants, and
thus no agency unique social engineering was legally admissible.
Moreover, just on the face of inherent tendencies, the potential
for involvement in a social engineering agenda is several orders of
magnitude greater with a religion-based organization.
In fact, it is most likely inevitable.
In spite of this glaring potentiality, the right wing argued that
many established faith-based organizations had a sustained record in
charity work. And therefore
they were just as properly suited and postured to take on the role of
welfare administrators as any candidate non-religious agency.
That claim notwithstanding, the overriding issue was the huge pot
of government dollars that was now up for grabs.
With money going to the private sector, the faith-based charity
establishment wanted the lion’s share if not ultimately the whole
enchilada. With Pentecostal
Ashcroft leading the charge, the charitable choice clause was a
masterstroke for the religious right.
It was the decisive foot in the door they now vigorously endeavor
to exploit. The theocratic
power mongers have breached a very large hole in the walls separating
government and religion (Ashcroft
Weaning Peter to Addicting Paul
least in theory, for the charitable choice agenda to prevail, Congress and
the American public must be convinced that a cumbersome mix of faith-based
and secular organizations will cost less and be more effective in dealing
with the problems of poverty and welfare dependence. Is there any tangible
justification for such a conclusion? Since
the enactment of the TANF program, the number of people on welfare has
steadily dropped overall. However,
this was not due to the intervention of private sector contractors or
charitable choice alternatives. Rather,
it was the unambiguous result of the TANF mandated five-year limit on how
long anyone could draw welfare. This
coupled with obligatory participation in job search, remedial education,
and/or community service in return for a welfare check.
In due respect to the issues, the 1996 welfare reform act was
motivated by the valid observation that the social theories underlying the
previous AFDC system encouraged people to become chronically dependent on
welfare for a living. After
the five-year time limits went into effect, many of the physically able
recipients eventually left the system for what employment they could find.
So, in terms of getting people off the welfare role, the essential
changes instituted by TANF have evidently served the goal for which they
were intended (Reference).
Very notably, however, this success was achieved with the
government bureaucracy still predominantly intact and with only limited
participation from faith-based or other private sector organizations.
Further, there is no substantive evidence that the few
participating private sector organizations were in any way superior in
terms of accomplishing the TANF mandated goals.
The tangible underlying problem with the old AFDC system was not
inefficiencies within the civil service system per se, but rather
congressional legislation that forced the civil service system to operate
on a bad welfare theory.
Is TANF ultimately the correct solution or just a political indulgence initiated during a time of economic prosperity? The jury is still out and will likely remain that way for quite some time. For the moment, welfare reform presses but with increasing participation from the faith-based private sector. Indeed, if TANF cannot be successful without private sector involvement, it is unlikely to be successful with private sector involvement. Ultimately, the question boils down to what practical value there is in contracting welfare services out to the private sector? Whatever the long run consequences of TANF, there is something curiously insensible about weaning the existing population of welfare recipients from dependence on government money only to allow religious charity organizations to become addicted. It only serves to entangle the government and the private sector in a corrupt and constitutionally destructive relationship.
of the reductions in the number of people drawing welfare, there have been
some tangible cost savings with the new system.
Because of the agenda under both the former and present
administrations, the resulting savings are unfortunately being neutralized
in the service of entangling government with religious agendas in other
There is therefore no reason to believe that the overall cost of
government-funded welfare and related charity grants won’t continue to
escalate. A less costly and
more efficient welfare system simply won’t be accomplished by replacing
the existing government bureaucracy with a plethora of charity and social
service organizations each having their own unique internal bureaucracies
and business agendas. The
resulting super bureaucracy will ultimately be larger, more complex,
expensive, and infinitely more difficult to audit and enforce regulatory
standards. Further, if bad
politics hadn’t turned welfare reform into a candy-shop for the private
sector in the first place, the whole issue of religious involvement and
First Amendment violations would never have become a player.
the social and economic dangers haven’t done much to deter the advocates
of “partnerships” between religion and government.
They appeal to intervening social problems like occupational
indolence, drug addiction, divorce, teenage pregnancies, and so on to
justify their cause. In some
way, all of these maladies are believed to be causally or incidentally
linked to crime, unemployment, and inadequate childcare among the
nation’s poor. The classic
notion is that the antecedents of poverty and joblessness stem from
insufficient cultivation of the character traits underlying self-control,
social responsibility, and honest hard work.
In addition, since it’s so often touted to be instrumental to
such things, it seems completely reasonable to the hard-core faithful that
religion should be steward to the new welfare system.
The proponents go on to assert that faith-based charity
organizations are more likely to understand the problems of the people in
the communities they serve. The
inevitable assertion is that they can reach and redeem many among the
needy that a government agent or non-religious private sector alternative
cannot. Such claims often come
attended with glowing reports about the miracles wrought by faith-based
organizations and how inexpensive they were to achieve.
appealing to some, these augments suffer from severe shortfalls.
Religious charities have undoubtedly helped some people, but claims
of success across the larger population tend not to hold up when closely
examined. In addition, there
is the inherent problem of achieving fair representation among the various
religious persuasions and denominations each having a stake in matters of
faith and community outreach. Neither
religion in general nor any sectarian persuasion in particular has any
exclusive claim to the keys of character building.
There are far too many people with alternative religious and
philosophical orientations, who demonstrate the marks of economic and
social success in life to ever suggest otherwise.
Not everyone’s circumstances and predilections are the same and
thus no single moral or motivational shoe will ever fit all.
A given faith-based organization may be institutionally incapable
of relating beneficially to the life circumstances or unique challenges
facing a given welfare recipient and not possess the wisdom of insight to
realize it. At best, they can
help some of the people some of the time, but they can’t come close to
helping all of the people all of the time.
their very nature, faith-based organizations carry tangible biases
regarding moral values and social engineering theory.
In virtually any instance, the specifics of their biases won’t
enjoy universal acceptance. They
may be racially, religiously, or socially prejudiced and therefore
potentially in conflict with the beliefs of either the welfare recipient,
the pluralistic interests of the larger community, or both.
This creates problems for establishing equitable standards within
the government’s selection process that defy transcendence.
Whatever the government’s selection criterion might turn out to
be, it couldn’t possibly accommodate all private sector organizations
having legitimate stakes in matters of faith and charity causes.
The hard truth is that any organization that is authorized
government money and authority to dispense welfare entitlements enjoys a
competitive edge over the organizations that are not so authorized.
In such case, the un-funded organizations face an undercutting of
their ability to perform the useful work they can.
Forcing the welfare recipients under the tutelage of the funded
organization may actually deter the recipients from connecting or
sustaining relations with the kind of motivational support and guidance
that best suits their circumstances. In
such case, the funded organizations end up enhancing their own influence
at the expense of both the welfare recipient and the eclectic
effectiveness of the larger religious and human service community.
who asserts that welfare recipients don’t have a “charitable choice”
under a government run system, are really indulging in political
sophistry. When was it that
any charity organization didn’t have the right to engage in community
outreach and thus assist those who are interested and willing?
When was it that any welfare recipient didn’t have the right to
solicit guidance and support from among the various churches and charity
organizations? If some
non-profit organization is so sterling in what it provides, then the word
will get around and both private sector donations and the needy will come
knocking without needing government money and authority to leverage
attention. The truth is that
government funding is advantageous in terms of achieving the kind of
official status that funnels the welfare eligible to the organization’s
door. Although always touted
to be in the name of righteous causes, the result may end up being
beneficial only to the organization’s proprietors and not to the poor
and underprivileged they allegedly serve.
Poverty’s Measure and Fundamentalist Causes
the blunt truth is that poverty has been an inherent problem since the
dawn of civilization and its complete eradication is a distant ideal at
best. Undoubtedly, there are a
significant number of citizens in this country that are poor and under
privileged. Still, being poor
and under privileged is something that must be reckoned against a tangible
objective standard. That is,
there is a large difference between simply being poor or under privileged
and being completely destitute. For
instance, the United States Census measures poverty against a threshold
standard of yearly income relative to family size.
In comparison, it is unlikely that the standards used by most other
nations are nearly so generous.
all is considered, the percentages of officially poor or destitute
Americans versus the objective depth of their collective plight, comes
nowhere near to matching the problems of poverty and outright starvation
in so many other parts of the world. Relative
to global conditions, it would be grossly unfair to judge that our nation
performs so badly in keeping poverty levels in check (some
statistics). Notably also,
we have managed to do quite well without feeding the religious charities
with tax dollars. In fact, one
of the salient reasons that so many people migrate to this country (either
legally or illegally) is because of the rich and often exploitable system
of welfare and social security entitlements that residency affords (example).
A private sector administered welfare system with diminished
government oversight is bound to be even more amenable to exploitation.
In fact, the very process of implementing the TANF system has
created a transitional condition of great national vulnerability.
Quite predictability, powerful right wing factions are vigorously
endeavoring to exploit it. With
their ceaseless propaganda about cultural permissiveness and moral decay
as justification, they do their deadly best to transform the public
welfare system into a government-funded religious establishment.
fundamentalist's solution for saving society from itself hasn’t changed
much in more than a thousand years. Give
them the seat of power and authority, they declare, fashion the laws in
accordance with their doctrinal and moral mandates, and all of society’s
ills will magically shrink away. The
trouble is that the history of their religion’s participation in the
world does not justify the claim. Their
religion is not by any means beyond accountability where societal ills are
nation’s collective efforts to keep poverty, illiteracy, and related
problems in check will not benefit by an overemphasis on religion.
Take for example the dominant influence of Catholicism in Mexico
for example. The nature of the
popular faith inherently discourages competitors, both civil and
religious, thus implicitly if not consciously encouraging weak and corrupt
government dominated by a counterpart rich and privileged upper class
minority. If strong secular
systems of social welfare were to come into being, then the citizenry
would not be so dependent on the church in times of need.
That kind of material and psychological dependency the church
dearly endeavors to cultivate and sustain.
It is a known fact that religious participation and viable secular
welfare systems are negatively correlated.
on the degree of religious pluralism and governmental regulation
faced by religious organizations, we argue and empirically demonstrate
that state welfare spending has a detrimental, albeit unintended, effect
on long-term religious participation and overall religiosity …….. The
implication is that religious social mobilization and political
involvement are more likely in countries with less extensive welfare
systems and, conversely, that the expansion of state-sponsored social
welfare will diminish, though not eliminate, the role that religion will
play in politics.” (Gill
a sectarian coalition lurks behind the faith based welfare movement in the
US, the same generic dynamic of church versus state power and authority is
nevertheless in play. The
imposition of “charitable choice” and “faith based” social welfare
are decisively insidious steps toward consuming the United States under an
archaic theocratic design. The great strength, vitality, and promise of
America is in its plurality and diversity, be it racial, ethnic,
occupational, religious, philosophical, or in matters of personal
lifestyle. These precious liberties are the very stuff that fundamentalist
religion has always openly and even violently sought to discourage.
The precious freedom of differing points of view and choices about
matters of religion and morality can only exist in a nation where
separation between government and religion is effectively enforced.
bottom line is that the American taxpayer should not accept paying for a
public welfare system that stands to be religiously monopolistic, socially
discriminatory, increasingly costly, and constitutionally destructive.
Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to fashion and sustain a welfare
system that is completely impartial in matters of race, ethnic background,
religion, or lifestyle circumstances.
However, a civil service administered welfare system that is bound
to enforced standards of neutrality, has at least a reasonable chance of
approximating that ideal. In
contrast, a welfare system inherently biased by an evil mix of religiosity
and profit motive can never possibly come close. The Sixth Article and
First Amendment were explicitly intended to guarantee freedom of religion
and therefore also protection from conscription to religion.
All citizens of this nation, regardless of their social or economic
status, have the right to such entitlements without coercion or
conscription by religion or any other factionist social ideology.
The “charitable choice” and “faith based” legislative
agenda is indicative of a constitutionally anarchistic trend in American
politics that threatens those basic civil rights.
The pragmatically and constitutionally valid answer is to scrap
private sector involvement altogether and distance the core welfare
programs from the politically charged issues of “faith-based”
participation. Any argument
about the present legislative snowball being impossible to stop is an
insidious illusion. If we were
able to repeal AFDC after all these years, then we can certainly turn back
TANF from being corrupted by the private sector opportunism that the
“charitable choice” loophole has fostered.
Allowing any faction the means to achieve stewardship over our
public welfare system places the Constitution and the future of our basic
civil entitlements in danger. The
only tangible solution is to repeal the charitable choice clause and
thereby have done with the president Bush’s and now president Obama’s
faith-based extrapolations altogether.
nation’s government stands on a vital balance of power between the rule
of law and the rule of democracy.
Both are required in a just and free society.
The juxtaposition of power is guardian against prejudicial mob
rule, but also intends a government for all of the people, not just some
of the people. Among other
things, the Constitution was crafted to protect minority rights against
the tyranny of the majority. For
the same reason it is also intended to be guardian against injustices
wrought by any powerful minority. The
religious right wing is such a minority.
They are the perpetrators of the faith-based movement which has
gained sufficient public empowerment to steer national politics down a
very dangerous path. If
our elected officials are collectively subtending the Constitution in the
service of factional religious interests, then a vital balance of legal
power has come undone. The
Bush administration was not the sole perpetrator of the faith-based
agenda. During 2000t
presidential campaign, Al Gore drummed heavily on the charitable choice and
faith-based welfare stump. And
it’s not to be forgotten that it was President Bill Clinton who signed
the TANF legislation into law with the charitable choice clause attached.
With Joe Lieberman and company fueling the initiative in the
aftermath, an influential bipartisan coalition was visibly operative. One
that is indicative of a dangerous epidemic of factional corruption
infecting our entire political system.
Consistent with this President
Obama has let Bush’s biased faith-based executive orders
stand virtually untouched. This
is in complete contradiction to the promises Obama made during his 2008
run for the Whitehouse. Thus
at present, it’s still business as usual for the charitable