Putting All the Pieces Together: How the Church Responds to Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

Cutting people off the welfare rolls is the easy part, but Catholic parishes and carries are struggling to help people put together the different pieces of the puzzle so they can lift themselves out of poverty.

For Donna M., a single mom in Montgomery, Alabama, staying off welfare is a puzzle.

"I'm all for personal responsibility," she says. "After my husband left me, I tried lots of jobs: waitressing, factory assembly, you name it. Each time, things rolled along OK for a while. Then my luck would go bad. Like the time when my car broke down, or when my son, Matthew, got sick."

Each crisis in Donna's life affected both her job attendance and performance, resulting in a less-than-perfect job record. After her son's last hospital stay, Donna decided it made more sense to drop out of the workforce and go on welfare rather than pay expensive in-home care.

"I don't like it, but I don't see any other way. If I can't solve this piece, I can't put the rest of the puzzle together. I can't make it work."

Donna is one of thousands of welfare recipients nationwide whose greatest challenge is becoming and staying economically self-sufficient.

For years a growing chorus of politicians, social workers, and even welfare families complained that the federal system of welfare actually kept people trapped in a cycle of poverty by giving few incentives to work and being inflexible at the local level. In the early 1990s, even the U.S. bishops were calling for reforms to make welfare more humane and effective.

Congress responded, and on August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known by most people as the new federal welfare-reform law. This historic legislation set into motion tremendous changes in how public assistance is provided for the poor and vulnerable all across the United States.

The law shifts funding and control of the newly named "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families" (TANF) back to the states through block grants, places a lifetime limit of five years on a person's eligibility to receive public assistance, increases work requirements for recipients, and ends most federal benefits for noncitizens.

What has been and will be the impact of these changes?

Proponents of this particular version of welfare reform feel that local--rather than federal--control of welfare programs provides the needed flexibility to create community-based programs that truly address poverty.

Opponents claim that shifting responsibility to the states has been a disguise for saving money at the cost of abandoning the nation's poor and vulnerable. Both sides seem to agree, however, that we are involved in a great unknown experiment in social policy.

In the time since Clinton signed the new welfare law, each individual state has been working to redesign its own welfare policy and procedures. Many state legislatures around the country have debated and passed into law various aspects of their plans--relating to both funding and policy. Job training, child care, and food stamps for immigrants have needed funding. States have had to decide if they are instituting penalties, residency requirements, or shorter lifetime limits.

The voices of Catholic parishioners and leaders have played a significant role in the debates at the state level. In Virginia, for example, Bishop Walter Sullivan called upon middleclass Catholics to make a trip to the state capitol and stand side by side with legal immigrants who were facing the elimination of all public benefits.

"They helped us get access and appointments with legislators," says Juan L., a recent immigrant. "Once inside the door, we had a chance to explain why certain limited benefits were crucial for our families." The Catholic support eventually helped persuade the Virginia General Assembly to restore, among other things, funding for medical services for immigrant children. …