It goes without saying that churches and faith-based organizations of all kinds have for decades played a vital role in aiding individuals and families in distress in ways that have contributed to alleviating some of America's most serious social problems.
President Bush recognized the constructive role they've played by creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Its purpose is to promote the integration of religious groups into federally financed social services.
Yet the initiative has raised concerns in some quarters, including among theologians, civil rights and civil liberties organizations, and social service groups, that it will breach the constitutional barriers separating church and state, and produce a host of other problems.
The Bush Administration has pledged to undertake the effort with care and a proper appreciation for the Constitutional safeguards.
Nonetheless, there is no other way to think of the faith-based initiative—with its intention of dispensing millions of federal dollars to faith-based organizations—except as forging a significantly expanded direct relationship between the federal government and faith-based groups. The federal government should venture into this arena with caution and care.
This isn't to say the effort does not deserve to be supported for precisely the reason I stated in beginning this column: the long-standing involvement and track record of churches and faith-based organizations in addressing the humanitarian needs of people is admirable.
Black America knows firsthand how valuable and essential these institutions are to the health and vitality of our community. The church and other faith-based organizations have been both black Americans' spiritual rock and also in many, many instances down through the years a crucial provider of material assistance. Their value has been and continues to be immense. Words the great diva Leontyne Price once used to describe the importance to African Americans of Negro spirituals—she said they were "the black heartbeat"—apply to faith-based organizations themselves.
The National Urban League has drawn on the importance of faith-based organizations within black communities to help us carry out our mission since its founding ninety years ago. Our success would not be as great otherwise.
That tradition, and necessity, of partnership continues today.
For example, our affiliate, the Tucson Urban League, is part of a coalition drawn together by the Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church there, its community neighbor,
to seek federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development a housing development for senior citizens. The coalition includes a local nonprofit housing corporation, and the Urban League's national housing and community development staff has also assisted the effort.
We've not hesitated to call on faith-based organizations for our national projects, too.
The most dramatic example is our effort to inspire more black youngsters to do well in school and do good in their communities, the Campaign for African-American Achievement. At the national level, we've been joined in that campaign by nearly two dozen black professional and civic associations. But we went first to the Congress of National Black Churches, the twenty-million strong coalition of eight denominations and 65,000 churches.
In other words, we fully understand the power and reach and determination to do good of faith-based organizations.
That's also been the experience of Franklin D. Raines, chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae, and a National Urban League trustee. Raines wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal that his experience is "that the public sector clearly benefits from private entities delivering public benefits. … Faith organizations have taught Fannie Mae valuable lessons on how to help lenders reach and serve the underserved."
Of course, many faith-based programs operate strictly inside a religious institution and rely solely on its resources. Many will continue to do so.
But other such programs, such as church-sponsored housing development corporations, over the years have received public support. And more, undoubtedly, deserve to have the chance to pass muster to do so.
That said, there are at least three key issues to this that must be adequately addressed.
One, of course, are the safeguards to ensure that the relationship between the federal government and faith-based organizations preserves the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state; that faith-based groups observe all laws forbidding discrimination by race, religion, gender or sexual preference, and that they avoid proselytizing or introducing religious practices or beliefs into the operation of publicly-financed programs.
A second is the thorny issue of how the Bush Administration will handle applications for federal funds from organizations which claim to be faith-based but whose beliefs are profoundly offensive to American values.
And finally, all faith-based organizations must meet rigorous requirements that test their capacity to deliver. It's not enough to have the will. They must have the skill and the other necessary resources.
That'll be the best way to ensure that putting faith to work works.
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With all due respect to the President's tax initiative, there were two other developments on the economic news front last week that are important, too. Certainly, they were startling, and worrisome.
One was that the number of homeless people—largely families or single women—lodging nightly in New York City's homeless shelter system has risen above 25,000, the most in more than a decade.
City officials attributed the increase, which includes a ten-percent jump in just the last year, to several factors. Among them are sharply rising costs for housing and a decline in subsidized housing.
Nor is New York City's situation unique. A recent survey of 25 cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that the number of families applying for help because of homelessness had increased by seventeen percent.
Officials in New York and other cities are trying to mobilize more resources to cope with the problem, but advocates for the homeless are pessimistic these efforts alone will be sufficient.
One, Steven Banks, told the New York Times that the situation "is a window into what's happening in the economy overall."
"Whereas the debate for the last few years has been about work programs (for the poor)," Banks continued in a chilling comment, "what we're now seeing is that work isn't enough to keep people out of the shelter system."
Professor Dennis Culhane, of the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that because of the long-term demand during the past two decades for urban housing by single, affluent adults, "homelessness went from a problem afflicting a few thousand skid-row denizens, to a commonplace way station for millions of America's poor."
The second important economic story that caught my eye was that tax revenues in as many as fifteen states have suffered sharp declines in just the last month or so, leading them to cut their budgets for the first time in a decade.
All of the affected states depend on sales and manufacturing taxes: the shortfalls in those revenues are another sign that the economy is slowing down.
If you put these two economic developments together, one of the things it means is that at the very time the poorest of the working poor are facing the most desperate situation imaginable, state governments are having to consider cutting social-service programs.
Of course, many of those at the bottom of the wage ladder are African-American.
On the one hand, their very presence there had become in recent years one sign of the historic economic progress African Americans charted during the latter half of the 1990s.
That was when the black unemployment rate declined steadily into single digits (today it stands at 7.6 percent) largely because the economy's growth opened up millions of low-wage service jobs—and young, poor black men and women flocked to them.
Now, they, along with their fellow Americans among the working-poor, face a dire situation.
The predicament of Americans who work and who want to work but remain desperately poor underscores the point that huge gaps persist in the circumstances of African Americans and other Americans. Those gaps add up to what I call the "opportunity gap;" and my colleagues and I will speak more about this gap and the "opportunity agenda" we've put together to reduce it in coming columns.
But for now these two stories make clear that the "poverty gap" and the "employment gap" remain daunting for millions of Americans—even when they have jobs and are trying to lead productive lives.
It's axiomatic – or at least it should be — that people who work for a living shouldn't be poor. Although welfare reform has propelled former recipients into the workforce, many fulltime breadwinners earn so little that they stay stuck below the poverty line. Nationwide, roughly 6.3 percent of workers live below the poverty line. Yet the ratio for black workers is nearly twice that at 11.7 percent.
President Bush and Congress should shrink the poverty gap by increasing the minimum wage to at least $6.15 an hour. (Adjusted for inflation, it's still below the high water mark of the equivalent of $7.67 set in 1968.) Let's make work pay, instead of making workers pay. Diehard opponents say increasing the minimum wage will destroy jobs and stoke inflation, but there's no credible evidence to substantiate that claim.
And, as part of any tax reduction package, the president should press Congress to further liberalize the Earned Income Tax Credit, so that low-wage workers have more disposable income that lifts their families above the poverty line. The income ceiling should be raised and taper off more gradually. Also, families with more than two children should be entitled to a credit for each youngster, just as well-heeled families can deduct the interest on home mortgages no matter how much their home cost.
The National Urban League's "opportunity agenda" is an American agenda. It's designed to level the playing field and equalize the economic vital statistics of our community—the United States of America. These two stories identifying the economic gap that is yawning wider prove that our agenda needs to be acted upon—now.
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