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Seducing the Samaritan? A spoonful of government aid may be just enough to spoil the mission

Issue: "Beyond bread and circuses," Aug. 15, 1998

Even today, with "charitable choice" still in its infancy, many charities that grew out of religious commitment have become dependent on money they receive from government grants and contracts. Interviews with charity leaders in Massachusetts suggest three ways in which government funding tends to remake providers in its own bureaucratic image:
(1) Government funding causes organizational mission creep. This was the phrase used to describe the shift in the objectives of U.S. Marines in Somalia: from delivering food to chasing down local warlords. For private agencies on the public dole, it means bending their agendas to secure state and federal contracts. "It becomes almost like heroin," says nonprofit veteran Ed Gotgart. "You build your program around this assumption that you can't survive without government money."

Mission creep means that distant politicians and bureaucrats, rather than frontline workers, define an agency's objectives. "Most everyone is fighting for every penny they can get," says Jacquelin Triston, a program director at the Salvation Army: The temptation is to "take your program and fit it into what government will give you money for."

(2) Government squeezes providers into its caregiving mold. The bureaucratic state places tremendous pressure on providers to adopt its vision of "professional" care. Rev. Phillip Earley, legal counsel at Catholic Charities in Boston, laments what he calls "the cookie-cutter approach to treating people."

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Providers complain of licensing and credentialing requirements, which involve detailed rules governing programs and facilities-from room decorations to limitations on lunchtime outings. The Massachusetts government's emphasis on academically credentialed staff also tends to squeeze out all but the most professionalized caregivers.

(3) Government tends to secularize religious agencies.

State contractors have demanded that religious groups surgically separate their government-funded acts of charity from their overall religious outlook. The Salvation Army, for example, has long been known for its Bible-based approach to tackling substance abuse. But under the Army's state-funded programs, if clients heard a sermon on sobriety, it was after-hours and never from a state-paid counselor or program director.

Will the "charitable choice" regime loosen things up? Will governments change their spots? Sociologist Peter Berger of Boston University warns of the compromising impact of the modern secular state: "He who dines with the devil had better have a long spoon." For private agencies serving the poor and needy in our communities, it seems wise not to throw away long spoons.


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