President Bush used this year's commencement ceremony at Notre Dame University to push his plan for direct federal financing of faith-based social service providers as the next phase in the government's decades-long campaign to end poverty, the New York Times reports.
In his commencement address, the president said government did the right thing in the 1960s by expanding services to poor Americans and again in the 1990s by putting limits on such assistance. Now, Bush said, it was time for government to encourage individuals and groups, including religious ones, to address the needs of the poor.
"The war on poverty established a federal commitment to the poor," Bush said. "The welfare reform legislation of 1996 made that commitment more effective. For the task ahead, we must move to the third stage of combating poverty in America. Our society must enlist, equip, and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide."
The president's visit to Notre Dame — a Catholic university — coincided with an announcement that the university had endowed a Laura Bush Scholarship, in honor of his wife, that each year will pay the tuition of a student enrolled in a Catholic elementary or secondary school in Texas.
Civil libertarians and some religious leaders have charged that the president's plan blurs the boundary between church and state. But in his address, the president offered his most detailed defense of the plan to date. Noting that six of the ten largest corporate givers in the country restrict donations to faith-based groups, the president also announced a summit meeting this fall at which he would ask corporate philanthropic leaders to rethink those policies.
"Medicaid and Medicare money currently goes to religious hospitals," Bush said. "Should this practice be ended? Child-care vouchers for low-income families are redeemed every day at houses of worship across America. Should this be prevented? Government loans send countless students to religious colleges. Should that be banned? Of course not.... America has a long tradition of accommodating and encouraging religious institutions when they pursue public goals."