The Sad Failure of Faith-Based Charity

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

A story in The Ledger of Lakeland earlier this week disclosed that the Florida Baptist Children’s Home will soon close two of its programs at the Lakeland campus. One is a group home and the other is a vocational training program, both for developmentally disabled adults.

I know something about the group home. My wife is working on a project, and as part of her research, she interviewed the five women who live there. We paid a visit to them during a recent open house. They live as a family, sharing the home with house parents employed by the FBCH. Most have simple jobs or volunteer work, and they have a measure of independence.

The reason the home is closing, of course, is money, but behind the decision is a telling comment about the way “faith-based initiatives” work.

The adult group home opened in 1992 and “was supposed to be self-sustaining,” Charlie Cox, vice president for programs for the children’s homes, told the Ledger. But for each of the past four or five years, his agency has shelled out $40,000 to make up for cutbacks in state reimbursements.

By “self-sustaining,” Cox meant that all expenses were supposed to be paid for by government disability programs. Now that the FBCH has had to bear an increasing share of the cost, its response is to close the home.

The FBCH is an agency of the Florida Baptist Convention, one of the largest of the state conventions in the Southern Baptist Convention. For years religious and political conservatives have argued that private charities can do a better job than government in providing social services. Let the charities do it and get the government out of giving handouts, we were told.

Except the religious charities themselves were the ones with their hands out. The charities put up just a fraction of the money for the services. The government pays most of the cost.

Take Catholic Charities USA, one of the largest religious charities in the United States. In 2009, about 67 percent – two-thirds – of its income came from the federal government, most from the Department of Health and Human Services. How much of its income came from the dioceses of the Catholic Church? Three percent. Compared to government funds, you’d have to use a microscope to find the church’s own contributions to its charitable arm.

By the way, this is the same organization that is screaming bloody murder that its religious liberty is being violated by new HHS healthcare rules requiring contraceptive coverage for employees.

Now that government funds have begun to dry up, how have the charities responded? By taking responsibility and making up the difference? No, by cutting back or eliminating services.

The reality is that private charities have nothing close to the resources of government. In 2010, the executive arms of the country’s two largest denominations, the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, combined took in about $337 million, or about what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spends every three hours. Most denominations typically spend only about 10 to 20 percent of their budgets on “outreach” ministries.

There is nothing wrong with government subsidizing the work of private charities. It’s a partnership that makes sense, as long as everyone agrees on the ground rules. The FBCH group home has been an excellent, if small, program, like many faith-based social services.

What irks me is that religious and political conservatives pontificate about the superiority of private charities, which take government money, but then refuse to put up their own money when government support shrinks. It’s the worst kind of hypocrisy, and the result is that five developmentally disabled women are being turned out, likely to live with family members.

They are only five of many whom faith-based charities have failed.

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