President Bush launched an ambitious initiative last week, aimed at empowering local charitable groups and faith-based organizations in their struggle to combat crime, drug addiction, and poverty.

The plan fulfills Bush's campaign promise "to mobilize the armies of compassion" by funneling increased government subsidies into faith-based charities. In the past, such assistance had been earmarked almost exclusively for government agencies.

"When we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives," said Bush.

Traditionally, the government's response to urban decay has been to throw money at the problem. Despite spending billions of dollars on public education, assisted housing, and crime prevention, urban communities continue to experience increasing rates of drug addiction, criminal activity, eroding family structures, and welfare dependency.

The statistics are disconcerting: According to the National Assessment Governing Board, 54% of black high school seniors have "below basic" reading skills. Public housing is deteriorating, while the violent-crime rate has soared 280% since 1965. Meanwhile, the out-of-wedlock birthrate has increased nearly sixfold during the last 35 years. As the nuclear family goes boom, so do our communities--72% of adolescent murderers come from homes without fathers. Get it? Federal money alone cannot raise our children.

This rousing fact has not been lost on our president. By partnering with faith-based institutions, Bush has offered something no less pervasive than a new compact between church and state, and a new direction in the philosophy of the welfare state. Bush's faith-based strategy attacks poverty from the bottom up, not with distant programs, but by nurturing those local institutions that help affix hope and meaning to an individual's existence. It is here--in nurturing an individual's self worth and self-reliance--that America's faith-based organizations have proved far more successful than traditional government programs.

Recent studies have demonstrated that faith-based community initiatives, like Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministry and Teen Challenge, are hugely successful in revitalizing impoverished communities. The latter, in fact, rehabilitates substance abusers at a 70% clip. That's 50-60% more successful than the national average.

Though there has been much talk about how the spiritual component of faith-based programs accounts for their success, the real benefits might very well be structural. Consider that for the better part of the century, faith-based charitable organizations have established networks across the country. According to research gathered by University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan, urban religious congregations contribute about 5,300 hours a year in volunteer services and roughly $144,000 a year in social services. From drug rehab centers to prison ministries, these organizations are out there in large numbers.

Of course, the thought of our government collaborating with faith-based institutions has caused some to quiver. Predictably, the ACLU promptly fired off a press release accusing the faith-based initiative of violating the separation between church and state. Sadly, the ACLU is more comfortable discriminating against faith-based institutions than working to cultivate hope and meaning in our children's lives.

Other groups have expressed concern that government support would influence the message and integrity of faith-based programs. Bishop Harold Ray, who met with President Bush last week, is quick to explain away such concerns: "They're quite condescending and insulting and literally presumptuous as to both the intent and the integrity of the church and the faith-based institutions in being able to read rules and regulations and implement them accordingly."

One thing is clear: After spending the last three decades arbitrarily throwing money at the problem, our urban structures are still decaying, criminals are still stalking through our city streets, and the hopes of our inner-city children continue to be crushed beneath negative expectations. Distant government programs may not be able to affix meaning, hope, and self-reliance to an individual's existence, but faith-based institutions can. It is time to stop discriminating against such organizations, and start collaborating with them in order to cultivate the expectation of other possibilities in our urban communities.

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