What's Wrong with "Charitable Choice"?
President Bush is assembling his “armies of compassion” under the banner of Charitable choice -- a decisive move to contract out federal social service functions such as counseling for alcohol and drug substance abuse, shelter and food services for homeless persons, assistance with employment and after school care to private religious organizations - to name a few.
The Executive Orders issued January 29 increase the role of faith-based and other community based organizations by establishing a new bureaucracy headed by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Order mandates that Justice, Education, Labor, HHS, and HUD create new Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives within 45 days. As stated, the new agency Centers will coordinate efforts to “eliminate regulatory, contracting, and other programmatic obstacles to the participation of faith-based and other community organizations in the provision of social services.” Specifically, each Center is to conduct an audit of barriers, incorporate faith-based and other community organizations “to the greatest extent possible.” Bush designated $24 million dollars for the new faith-based bureaucracy.
As others have noted, these Orders dangerously reduce the separation between church and state. There are other big problems with this push to religious organizational control of public services.
To begin with historically, the faithful have held curious and destructive attitudes about disablement. They have viewed disability as the mark of the devil, caused by demons, as a bad omen (best to avoid the disabled persons), or as the result of personal sin or a flawed soul and all such religious inspired nonsense as this.
As a wheelchair user, I have been accosted by complete strangers of religious persuasion on the street who have made it their God-bound duty to impose their beliefs upon me by making sure that I know about Jesus. More than one has wanted to “heal” me on the spot and they have not hesitated to explain it all to me. To these religious people my body symbolizes the imperfect vessel -- one that needs spiritual cleansing in order to be made “whole” by the grace of God. To them, I am a spiritual tragedy, burdened by my "suffering" which could be erased if I just believed in Jesus enough. To them it is lack of faith that has cause my disability, not the German measles my mother had in her first trimester of pregnancy.
Bush has appointed these kind of people to high positions in our government. Former Governor of Missouri John Ashcroft, now the US Attorney General, for instance, has stated that disabilities are the product of sin. According to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Ashcroft reportedly prayed over a child who had developed a brain injury in order to get rid of the sin he believed was the cause of the injury. At a rally at the Missouri Capitol rotunda on Mental Health Day, Ashcroft, who opposed increases to state mental health funding, preached from an open bible and encouraged mental health consumers, their families and advocates to stop relying on doctors and medications and to “go down to the altar and pray” telling them that is how they would “be cured.”
To be fair, such behavior is not limited to the Christian religion. One day as I was making my way down the street, a man of middle eastern origin cast his gaze upon me and began clapping his hands at spaced intervals, muttering words I could not understand. When I got past him (I guess far enough), he stopped. He did not do this to any of the non-wheelchair users he met on the street. The clapping was clearly directed at my physical state and I am certain it was some religious based ritual to ward of the demons of “sickness.”
In the year 2001 there is still cause to ask will disabled persons seeking services from faith-based organizations be taken to church, temples or mosques instead of being provided with medical assistance? Will spiritually “inferior” disabled persons of all sorts be pressured into joining a particular congregation and adopting that faith when they approach one of these faith based groups for services? These are attitudes that the Disability Rights Movement has worked hard to move the public beyond. Rights, for instance, are based on entitlements and laws geared to promote equality regardless of age, race, gender, sexual preference or disability.
There are other problems with this return to charity as salvation. Is the American memory span so short as to forget the days before social safety net existed? Charity failed then to build an egalitarian society and government entitlements were created to mitigate against the harsh economic realities that persisted in capitalist societies with charities in place. Moreover charities arbitrarily pick and choose who to serve. No one is entitled to anything from a charity, rather one must be designated a "deserving" case. Anyone can be denied access to services at any time for any reason.
Perhaps the beauty of the Bush plan to conservatives is this: if they can successfully promote the false notion that private organizations and businesses can best deliver social services, faith-based funding will undermine the Jeffersonian principle that government has any obligation to “promote the general welfare.” Entitlement - the right to government services - is likely the real target of the Faith-Based Initiative.
If their past is any indication, Ashcroft and Tommy Thompson (the new Secretary of Health and Human Services), having close ties to ties to the conservative philanthropies that sponsor most Republican ideologues, will play their roles to the hilt. Ashcroft, for instance, set the back-to-charity direct funding ball rolling in the 1996 welfare reform act, which contained a section he drafted called "Charitable Choice" that gave religious groups the right to present their religious beliefs along with their services and discriminate in hiring. Thompson, as governor of Wisconsin, tried to eliminate the disabled guarantee to Medicaid during the 1995 Congressional effort to block-grant Medicaid to the states. Calling the disabled guarantee an “onerous mandate,” he led the Republican governors' charge to end this federal entitlement to health care.
The driving force behind Charitable choice, however, is not limited to this president, one attorney general or one HHS Secretary. Rather, the move to contracting-out of federal functions to private religious organizations is the next logical extension of a historical shift which began with the neo-conservative Reagan era attacks on the redistributive system of government entitlement transfers in the 80s, picked up in the 90's Gingrich era as austerity cuts under the “Contract with America,” and now posed as “compassionate conservatism” in an era of budget surplus.
In an era where both parties have become worshipers of the market and are owned by investors and corporations, the matter has become bipartisan. Neo-liberal and Third Way politics both replace redistributive goals with a market approach catering to business class needs and both adopt the supply-side theory that the economy is burdened by overly-generous welfare provisions which give too much security to workers. Remember Former Democratic Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado said on McNeil Lehrer some years back "the New Deal is unsustainable…Social Security is obsolete … Medicare is unsustainable." President Clinton explained his pro business agenda clearly when he said "the era of big government is over." His motto became "more empowerment, less entitlement" and his slogan "from welfare to work."
In the past eight years Americans have gotten less. The politicos gave us welfare “reform” and deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamp programs, disabled childrens' SSI, and benefits for immigrants. When Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996 throwing millions of mothers onto the low end job market with no guarantee of a job or a living wage, he eliminated Title IV of the Social Security Act and ended the sixty year federal protection for the poor guaranteed by FDR. During those years of budget negotiations Clinton/Gore allowed the GOP to siphon $50 billion from food stamps, remove the cost of living adjustments for food stamps and take another $20 billion from aid to legal immigrants. Their administration did nothing to undo Reagan's slashes to SSI, rather his 1997 budget sought to save $596 billion by tightening SSI eligibility rules. Over 250,000 disabled children were severed from SSI and Medicaid, often the only available form of health care.
Joseph Lieberman is 100% behind Bush's Faith-Based Initiative. Al Gore supported Charitable choice during his presidential campaign. The bipartisan emphasis on Charitable choice conveniently ignores the consequences of neo-liberal economic and social policies put in place over the past thirty years and escalated over the past decade. According to Independent Sector, congregations *have* seen an increased demand in recent years. As a result of more people needing assistance, 41% of congregations have opened a new program, 40% worked additional hours, and 39% added capacity to their existing programs. If they could not serve the increased need, 64% of congregations referred people to other organizations. 10% of congregations put people on waiting lists while 19% of congregations turned people away.
32.3 million people are living below the official poverty line. 20 to 30 million Americans suffer from hunger. Hunger has increased by 50% in this nation of a plenty since 1985 and over 40% of those being served in soup kitchens are working poor -- those who work but do not earn enough to pay for food. These working poor - about 9.5 million people - work but remain in poverty. 10.3% of these persons worked full time in 1997 during the economic “boom” but were not able to rise above the poverty line. What is rarely noted is that the percentage of working poor has grown over the past two decades: 7.7% of workers working full time lived in poverty in 1978; and by 1997 the figure had climbed to 9.3%. According to U.S. Census Bureau's findings (1995), about 49 million people, one in five, lived in a household whose members had difficulty satisfying basic needs. These households didn't make mortgage or rent payments, failed to pay utility bills and/or had service shut off, didn't get enough to eat, needed to see a doctor or dentist but didn't or otherwise could not meet essential expenses. An estimated 7 million Americans are homeless.
It is no surprise that the Bush administration continues to obscure the structural causes of inequality by proposing that faith-based organizations fill the inflation of need which the decision-making class has caused with its neo-liberal social and economic policies. Both political parties have long taken discussion of the underlying flawed economic system off the table. Poverty persists. There is an ongoing lack of entitlement to the necessities like universal health care (43 million without healthcare now?) and no right to living wage employment that would enable a quality life. There is no guarantee of an income in the place of employment that would make one free from grave need. There has never been a substantial social safety net in the US. Now charitable choice portends to be one more way to undo the dirty entitlements that the big business contributors to the Bush and Gore campaigns despise so much. A plenty needs to be done to change that -- assembling an "army for economic rights" to counter the "armies of compassion" might be a start.
Marta Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org http://disweb.org/