Caring Only About the Dollars

"They don’t have to show results. … These so-called protectors of the poor only care about the dollars."

Those were Jim Towey’s farewell comments late last month about some long-term federal grant recipients. The head of the White House faith-based office was resigning to become president of a small Catholic college in Pennsylvania. He told me he was "filled with gratitude" for his four years on the job, but "saddened by the stranglehold that certain entrenched interests have."

Towey, an honest man, mentioned specifically the National Head Start Association: "Groups that get Head Start money will keep it until they go out of business." He also mentioned drug treatment block grants that continue to be given whether "anyone recovers in the programs or not" and after-school programs. He spoke of "really dynamic programs on the local level" developed by local Catholic Charities, but said, "I’ve been disheartened to see how partisan the national organization has been."

The Washington Post recently complained that "the administration has funneled at least $157 million in grants to organizations run by political and ideological allies." The Post was shocked that faith-based groups promoting abstinence education in South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, and five organizations run by black and Hispanic leaders who endorsed President Bush, all received grants.

Towey scoffed at reports that religious groups are taking over governmental social services: In area after area, Congress has "earmarked hundreds of millions, and faith-based groups only get a tiny percentage." He’s right, and even the Post acknowledged that "White House officials and new offices in 10 Cabinet-level departments have aggressively sought to widen the ‘pool’ of applicants for federal grants for all kinds." Clearly, those already in the pool do not want newcomers splashing around.

Towey did not use the apologetic reply favored by some elected as conservatives: Yes, why shouldn’t we get into the pork line? We want ours. It’s only fair! Because of such thinking, decentralizing tools such as poverty-fighting tax credits and an expansion of social service vouchers have largely been ignored. They should be used, Towey said, but "we need more people in Congress calling for them," since at this point such proposals are "dead on arrival in Congress."

Towey’s excellent oddness for Washington was evident when he announced to the press that he was leaving the White House, and one reporter asked, "You said, before you even took the job, that one of your career goals was to get to heaven. Do you think you’re a little closer?" That’s a rare question in Washington, and it’s even rarer for an official even to know where to begin in answering it.

Towey, who has five children ranging in age from 3 to 13, first deflected the question to his wife, Mary, who joked, "It’s more his marriage with me that’s helping him attain that goal than this job." He then said: "You’re as holy as your last prayer. So my career goal remains to get to heaven, and I’ve felt this job is part of my journey. And now my next step, to St. Vincent College, will be part of my journey. I always trust myself to the mercy of God."

It will take God’s mercy to advance compassionate conservatism in Washington, because decentralization has few friends among those at the political center. Give individual taxpayers tax credits for contributions to poverty-fighting groups, so the groups they favor will get more and Beltway officials will have less to hand out to their favorites? Fat chance. Vouchers so that those in need can decide where to get help instead of going to the organizations Washington prefers? No political capital in that.

But the long-term good news during Towey’s tenure was, as he noted: "The faith-based initiative has taken root in the heartland. … People who wanted to dismiss it have learned that it is central."


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