One of the most prominent features of the original coronavirus relief package last May was the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The idea was simple: Because so many businesses had to close their doors during the pandemic, millions were thrown out of work. PPP loans – which were essentially federally funded grants since the government said it would forgive most of the loans – were pitched as a way to help small businesses, many of which operate on a small financial margin, meet payroll and keep employees afloat during a difficult time.
Plenty of mom and pop shops and restaurants on Main Street did get much-needed help, but it also came to light that some of the businesses that received PPP support weren’t small; they were giant corporations. (Under pressure, some gave the money back.) And now it turns out that some of the religious organizations that received PPP loans were hardly in dire financial straits.
A major investigative report by the Association Press (AP) found that more than 200 Roman Catholic dioceses received $3 billion in PPP assistance – yet many of them had plenty of money on hand to weather the storm.
“As the pandemic began to unfold, scores of Catholic dioceses across the U.S. received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while sitting on well over $10 billion in cash, short-term investments or other available funds, an Associated Press investigation has found,” reported the AP. “And despite the broad economic downturn, these assets have grown in many dioceses.”
The AP highlighted the flow of PP money in three states:
Kentucky: The Archdiocese of Louisville received $17 million in PPP money, even though its income actually grew during the early months of the pandemic. A financial statement released by the archdiocese noted, “The Archdiocese’s operations have not been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak.”
Illinois: The AP found that the Archdiocese of Chicago had more than $1 billion in cash and investments on hand as of May 2020 and that church members were donating “more than expected.” Nevertheless, the archdiocese received at least $77 million in PPP aid.
North Carolina: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte received more than $8 million in PPP funds, even though it had assets of $100 million, which, during the early months of the pandemic, increased to $110 million. The Raleigh Diocese collected at least $11 million in PPP aid even as it sat on cash and assets worth $170 million.
Catholic churches weren’t the only ones to take advantage of the tax windfall. The AP also noted that Baptist, Methodist, Jewish and Lutheran faith-based entities received a total of $3 billion in PPP aid. But as the AP noted, “Catholic institutions also received many times more than other major nonprofits with charitable missions and national reach, such as the United Way, Goodwill Industries and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Overall, Catholic recipients got roughly twice as much as 40 of the largest, most well-known charities in America combined, AP found.”
These findings dovetail with a report issued by Americans United in July that found that billions in PPP aid was diverted to private religious schools, some of which had large endowments and received more money per student than nearby public schools that educate exponentially more children.
The PPP plan was pitched to Americans as a way to keep small businesses open during a difficult time. The fact that it ended up subsidizing houses of worship is controversial in its own right. That many of those institutions didn’t need the money in the first place is scandalous. As new forms of pandemic aid are considered, Congress and the Biden administration should take steps to ensure that the money ends up in the hands of those who really need it and doesn’t force taxpayers to fund clergy salaries, religious education or other religious activities.