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Mass. loses ground in faith-based funding

Sharp decline shown in state's share of grants

Massachusetts has seen its share of faith-based grant funding from the US government plunge by more than a third over the past three years, new federal figures show.

Religious groups in the state took in $19.6 million in federal grants under the program last year, down from $29.9 million in 2003, according to figures released this month by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Only Idaho had a steeper drop during that period.

The 34 percent reduction for Massachusetts from 2003 to 2005, which came as funding to faith-based groups nationwide increased, occurred largely during the tenure of Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican who has touted his ties in Washington, D.C., as a boon for Massachusetts. Romney has also stepped up his outreach to evangelical and Catholic voters as he prepares for a potential run for president.

Last June, Romney, acknowledging the state could do more to help religious charities win federal money for their social service programs, appointed his wife, Ann, to lead the effort. Ann Romney, who has worked for years with charitable causes, was appointed with three months left in federal fiscal year 2005, so the newly released figures don't reflect her involvement.

''The reason Governor Romney established the state's first-ever, faith-based liaison and appointed his wife, Ann, to this new position is because we felt we could do more to help faith organizations in Massachusetts get access to money that would allow them to do good works in the community," Romney's communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, said in an e-mail. ''Previously, that wasn't being done."

In Massachusetts, federal faith-based money has gone to housing, youth mentoring, and anti-drug programs, among others. The biggest recipients have been elderly housing organizations and the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston.

Since her appointment, Ann Romney has been a ''dynamo" in encouraging more Massachusetts groups to go after federal grants, said Jim Towey, director of Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The payoffs from the state's new focus will be evident down the road, he said.

''I think the fruit of their strides will be clear in future years," Towey said.

The decline in funding to Massachusetts has come as federal funding nationally to domestic faith-based programs has risen from $1.2 billion in 2003 to $1.6 billion in 2005, according to the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The number of individual faith-based grants to the state has remained steady.

Massachusetts dropped from 13th place to 20th place overall during the three-year period. States in the West and Midwest saw the biggest increases, but every other New England state experienced a significant boost: Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont all saw their total grant funding more than double, while Connecticut saw a 69 percent increase. (The figures reflect federal fiscal years.)

The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has no role in allocating funding. It compiles information on some 23,000 grants made to faith-based groups from federal agencies such as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Federal officials caution that the awards list is meant only to be a snapshot, not a complete accounting of federal grant dollars to organizations with religious affiliations. Indeed, several past grant recipients in Massachusetts that are not on the government's list for 2005 say they should have been, because they did receive money that year.

Over the past three years, grants have gone to an array of organizations in Massachusetts. In 2005, for example, Catholic Social Services of Fall River received almost $300,000 for housing and abstinence-education programs, and Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Framingham received $7.9 million for senior housing.

The Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston received a $1.4 million grant in 2005. The organization uses the money to help a host of community organizations set up and run their social service programs. The alliance, for example, worked with dozens of groups to create the High-Risk Youth Network, an initiative to expand services for youths and reduce violence among teens.

''From our experience, the program works," Harold Sparrow, executive director of the Black Ministerial Alliance, said of the faith-based initiative. ''At a grass-roots level it's been effective and we've helped people."

It's unclear exactly why Massachusetts didn't attract as much faith-based money in 2005 as it did in prior years. One explanation could be that the state received a few sizable, one-time grants in 2003. Towey also said that the competition for federal money has intensified, with many first-time applicants around the country making a pitch for funding.

''You can argue about how big the pot of money is or should be," Towey said. ''[But] this is what happens in competitive grant programs . . . You're going to see the variances."

Towey was in Boston last June for a roundtable with religious and social service leaders, and he's coming back in May for a similar meeting and to tour a program that relies on federal grants.

Massachusetts is one of 32 states that has a faith-based liaison or office, but other states have had theirs up and running longer, helping to connect religious organizations with federal grant opportunities. Ohio created its faith-based office in 2003, Oklahoma established one in 2000, and Texas opened its office in 2004.

Sparrow said that concerns about the church-state separation and political opposition to the faith-based initiative are particularly strong in Massachusetts, which he said could cause some leaders here to be more reluctant to get involved than their counterparts in other states.

''In Massachusetts it's not politically correct to do that," Sparrow said. But US Representative Edward J. Markey said faith-based grants make up only a small fraction of all the federal money Massachusetts receives, which he said has remained steady over the past five years even as the state has lost population.

''Massachusetts is doing very well overall," Markey, a Democrat, said in a statement.

President Bush launched the faith-based initiative soon after taking office in 2001, saying he wanted to remove barriers that had prevented religious organizations from accessing federal funds.

The measure stalled in Congress, but Bush later ordered federal agencies to rewrite regulations to allow religious charities to compete for federal contracts.

Many religiously affiliated charities had been getting government money before, but the change has opened the door for many others.

Critics say the faith-based initiative is little more than a political strategy to help Republicans court voters around the country, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics in so-called swing states. Bob Wineburg, a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and critic of the effort, said the Bush administration is simply interested in shoring up support among conservatives.

''This is about politics," Wineburg said. ''This is not about effective social-services delivery."

Towey rejects suggestions that the money is distributed for political advantage.

''The issue is not about regions, it's not about religions," he said. ''It's about results."

For Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a Boston organization that helps runaway and homeless youths, the federal money has produced results.

The organization uses a federal grant to fund a mobile health van, manned by volunteers, that goes out every night to Harvard Square, Dudley Square, the Park Street T station, and other areas of the city to develop relationships with youths and connect them with other services.

''That's what opens the door to having a conversation with these kids," said Carol Phillips, director of development and public relations for Bridge Over Troubled Waters.

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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