WASHINGTON – President Bush said Thursday that the federal government gave more than $2.1 billion in grants to religious charities last year – a 7 percent increase from the prior year and proof, he said, that his administration has made it easier for faith-based groups to obtain taxpayer funds.
Speaking to a White House-organized conference of 1,200 charity leaders from across the country, Bush said the administration is creating “a level playing field” for religious organizations to compete with secular groups to run drug treatment programs, homeless shelters and other social services.
Government’s role is “to fund, not to micromanage how you run your programs,” he said. “I repeat to you, you can’t be a faith-based program if you don’t practice your faith.”
The speech, accompanied by a blizzard of statistics on federal grants, was partly an appeal to religious supporters and partly a response to rising criticism.
In recent months, a broad array of religious leaders, from Reform rabbis to evangelical ministers, have complained that the president’s proposed budget cuts would fall primarily on the backs of the poor by restricting food stamps, Medicaid and other social spending, while preserving long-term tax cuts.
Last month, one academic study concluded that direct federal grants to faith-based charities actually fell from 2002 to 2004. Although the number of grantees rose, the total pie of available funds shrank by $230 million, according to a three-year survey of 99 federal grant-making programs by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a nonpartisan group at the State University of New York at Albany.
H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, accused the study’s authors of “cherry-picking” the data to produce a “rotten pie,” and he promised that the administration would soon come out with its own figures showing a steady increase in funding for religious groups.
Making good on that promise Thursday, the White House said it analyzed 23,000 grants made by seven federal agencies in fiscal 2005 and found that faith-based groups received 2,760 of them, an increase of 22 percent. The total value of grants to religious groups was $2.154 billion, up nearly $150 million from fiscal 2004, it said.
The White House acknowledged that the portion of all grant funds that went to faith-based groups barely budged, rising from 10.3 percent to 10.9 percent.
Its data also revealed declines in funding at some agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where grants to faith-based groups fell from $545 million in 2004 to $521 million in 2005, and the Department of Labor, where they dropped from $34 million to $20 million.
But Towey told reporters that those drops reflected peculiarities in multi-year funding cycles.
At the federal level, Towey maintained, there has been “steady progress in changing the culture” of grant-making to remove obstacles to funding religious groups.
In his speech, Bush also urged private foundations and corporations to “reach beyond the norm” and fund more faith-based groups. He said Towey’s office surveyed 20 corporations and found that “only about 6 percent” of their grants went to religious groups. “When we studied 50 large foundations, we found that one in five prohibited faith organizations from receiving funding for social service programs,” he said.