- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

With any luck the Senate will be witness very soon to a rare outbreak of bipartisan cooperation. A bill, S. 1924, the Senate version of the president's faith-based initiative, is on the verge of passage, and not a moment too soon. After decades of discrimination, a day of terror, and a long year of economic uncertainty, the CARE Act, which began as a great idea, has become an urgent need.

This legislation is designed to channel new resources to the poorest of the nation's poor and to encourage some of the most innovative and cost-effective charities in the country. These charities have been reeling from events beyond their control even beyond their imagining. They have perennially suffered from bureaucratic obstacles, including anti-religious prejudice, but over the past year, they have faced sharp declines in giving, as donations flowed, appropriately, to charities responding to the events of September 11.

Nearly 2,000 nonprofit groups have united in their advocacy of S. 1924. Large and small, sectarian and secular, conservative and progressive (how many bills have the support of both Americans for Tax Reform and Call to Renewal?), they have found in the CARE Act an embodiment of American compassion.

Both the symbolism and the substance of this legislation are profound. Hope often clings to very slender threads. The brave and bruised miners near Pittsburgh who endured several days of darkness and chest-deep water took turns standing close to a pipeline from the surface that brought them air, a modicum of heat and words of encouragement. The storefront charities that offer a hot meal, a wall from the wind or a clean bed to the homeless are similar pipelines.

The CARE Act delivers both emergency and life-changing forms of assistance. It provides new incentives for giving by individuals, corporations and foundations. Two-thirds of Americans who file tax returns do not itemize deductions, yet among their ranks are found some of the most generous (as a percentage of their income) givers. This bill offers these taxpayers equity and encouragement, allowing them to deduct up to $400 ($800 for a couple) of their donations to charity. Deductibility is also afforded to withdrawals from Individual Retirement Accounts that are transferred to charitable groups.

As difficult as the past year has been for the nonprofit sector, 2003 promises to be even bumpier. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that in the first half of this year alone, the assets of just nine of the top 10 U.S. foundations lost $8.3 billion in value due to the bear market. Contractions in giving by these foundations and others will be significant next year. The CARE Act, even at its highest projected cost, will make up only a portion of the funds missing from these and other sources.

Two provisions of this bill deserve special mention. Title II of the CARE Act expands Individual Development Accounts. IDAs introduce low-income families in a dramatic way to the benefits of saving and investing. Deposits into designated savings accounts are matched by participating banks and community organizations, on condition that the funds are used for life landmarks like purchasing a home or starting a small business. Experiments with IDAs show promise in improving thrift among individuals and families treading water at the poverty line. The CARE Act offers banks and community groups a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their matching contributions to IDAs, up to a maximum of $500 per account. This incentive has the potential to foster the creation of 900,000 new accounts over the next decade.

Senators as diverse as Sam Brownback and Hillary Clinton support the core provisions of the CARE Act. The most contentious part of the legislation its provision to protect the character of faith-based charities is narrowly tailored to redress only the most obvious forms of government discrimination. It does not relieve religious charities of any of their obligations to comply with existing federal, state and local civil rights laws. It does not ease grant criteria that apply to secular agencies. It merely assures that charities with a religious name, that have faith criteria for board membership, or that display religious icons or messages may not be denied eligibility to receive federal funds on the same basis as other charities.

Getting S. 1924 this far has been arduous. Senate Democrats and Republicans are tantalizingly close to an agreement that will allow a swift debate and vote on the bill. All eyes are now on foreign policy, amid pleas for politics to stop at the water's edge. The CARE Act is one chance for politics to stop well short of the water and to help some of the neediest of our fellow Americans. It's a chance we must not pass up.

Michael Joyce is the president of Americans for Community and Faith-Centered Enterprise.

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