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Bush's Faith-Based Plan Borrows a Page From FDR

February 18, 2001|Marc Dollinger | Marc Dollinger, associate professor of history at Pasadena City College, is currently in residence at Princeton University's Center for the Study of Religion. He is the author of "Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America."

PRINCETON, N.J. — When President George W. Bush recently hailed faith-based social spending as a "hopeful new direction for our government," he hardly blazed a new trail in U.S. public policy. Nearly 70 years ago, the Democratic Party's most celebrated chief executive, Franklin D. Roosevelt, earmarked New Deal dollars for the same purpose.

Constitutional concerns over church-state separation could barely be heard in the midst of the worst economic collapse in U.S. history. Even American Jews, the nation's most liberal white ethnic group, welcomed FDR's effort and celebrated the new symbiotic relationship between the government and private social-welfare organizations.

Church-state issues raised by Bush's plan have focused attention on a question of importance to all Americans: How will the federal government protect the rights of religious minorities? For Jews, the answer reaches to the heart of their American experience. In the early part of this century, the presence of a benevolent civil authority fueled a remarkable Jewish ascent from the working class to the middle class in just a single generation. Fear that the federal government might move closer to a Christian-based public policy invokes longstanding Jewish concerns over their own marginality and challenges their vision of America as a land of opportunity for peoples of all faiths.

In the 1930s, FDR's support of sectarian social-welfare organizations eased the mounting economic pressures they faced, signaled the arrival of an administration sensitive to Jewish needs and ultimately aided Jewish cultural survival by diverting private philanthropic dollars to new education programs. American Jews returned the favor by helping to reelect the Democratic standard-bearer with almost 90% of their votes.

Between 1933 and 1941, Jewish social workers led the charge for federal intervention, often requesting that the government fund religious-based organizations. In Boston, the executive director of the city's Jewish Philanthropies called for the creation of "an elaborate program of public social work, particularly in the field of relief." The leader of Omaha's Jewish community contended that "it is totally illogical . . . to hold ourselves aloof as a special and segregated group and to refuse to accept . . . aid and assistance from the public agencies."

With unemployment hovering at 25% and bread lines forming in major U.S. cities, social workers from both the public and private spheres understood the need for quick, effective action. Since religious-based social-welfare organizations boasted years of experience, bureaucratic infrastructure and an established record of high-quality care, the pragmatic Roosevelt turned to them as an obvious quick fix. Jewish social workers, for their part, could ensure continued service to their clients without fear of bankrupting their cash-strapped institutions.

Jewish leaders managed church-state concerns by separating the secular aspects of their work from the religious. Since the nation's high unemployment rate was the result of systemic weaknesses in the international economy, rather than individual vice, the dean of the Graduate School of Jewish Social Work explained, the Jewish poor "should be aided by the government whose duty it is to care for its citizens." Jewish social workers, many of whom grew up in the labor union movement, demanded that the U.S. government abandon its voluntaristic approach to social welfare in favor of state-sponsored programs typical throughout Western Europe.

The Jewish community did not have to wait long to test the new waters of affirmative government. Within eight weeks of his first inauguration, Roosevelt and Congress secured passage of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which allocated an initial $500 million "to provide for cooperation by the federal government with the several states in relieving the hardships and suffering caused by unemployment." Before passage of the Social Security Act prompted FDR to phase it out in December 1935, the relief act committed $4 billion to some 20 million Americans.

The Federal Emergency Relief Administration's effect on the Jewish community was immediate and profound. Within months, Jewish social-service agencies turned over the vast majority of their caseloads to public agencies. By 1934, they cut their welfare budgets in half. While Jewish social workers celebrated the government's newfound commitment to social welfare, they still worried that the public agencies would not deliver high-quality care or serve the special needs of Jewish clients. Whenever and wherever possible, they sought cooperative arrangements with government. In some cases, they encouraged public agencies to hire Jewish social workers to work with their co-religionists.

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