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


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


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


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


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 [email protected] http://disweb.org/



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