Thy Neighbor's Keeper: Can Private Charities Replace Tax-Funded Welfare? A Program in One Maryland County Suggests the Challenges Facing Church-Based Efforts to Help Welfare Mothers Become Self-Sufficient

By Sherman, Amy L. | Reason, August-September 1997 | Go to article overview

Thy Neighbor's Keeper: Can Private Charities Replace Tax-Funded Welfare? A Program in One Maryland County Suggests the Challenges Facing Church-Based Efforts to Help Welfare Mothers Become Self-Sufficient


Sherman, Amy L., Reason


Ed Kirk says he's the "kind of person that doesn't believe in failure." A retired Bell Atlantic executive, Kirk lives in a Maryland suburb and has worshiped at Our Lady of the Fields Catholic Church for 20 years. Two years ago, he and his wife, Elaine, helped Jane, a 32-year-old single mom, get off welfare. (The names of former and current welfare recipients have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Every day for four months, Kirk rose before 7 a.m., picked up Jane and her toddler, dropped the boy off at the babysitter, and drove Jane to work. She did a lot of temping, and sometimes jobs were 30 or 40 miles away. During the long drives, he'd cheer and cajole.

"I was always talking to her positively, telling her she could get off welfare," Kirk says. He wouldn't let her dwell on the negative, tolerated no excuses for not working to resolve her problems, and encouraged her to focus on the future. After a 14-month roller coaster ride of hirings and firings, health problems, suspicious drug activity, eviction, and family reconciliation, Jane has finally settled into a full-time clerical job with medical benefits in Washington, D.C., and has her own apartment. Kirk says it's a success story but admits "it had a lot of bruises along the way."

Kirk's church is one of two dozen congregations in Maryland's Anne Arundel County that participate in the Community-Directed Assistance Program, or C-DAP. Launched in June 1994, the program links welfare recipients with small support teams of church volunteers. The church receives one year's worth of the recipient's AFDC benefits in a lump sum, and the volunteers and recipient work together for six months to tackle the obstacles to economic self-sufficiency and find stable, permanent employment. Since its inception, 21 welfare recipients have enrolled in C-DAP and 14 have not returned to the state's welfare rolls. Though small-scale, C-DAP is the most creative and thoughtfully constructed partnership between the religious community and local government I've seen while researching such initiatives in several states on the cutting edge of welfare reform. And soon more welfare recipients may be able to join something like C-DAP: Officials from Maryland's Frederick County and Washington County have invited C-DAP manager Remy Agee to teach them how to replicate the program.

Agee, an employee of Anne Arundel County's Department of Social Services, is quick to say that "C-DAP isn't for everyone." Because of its emphasis on work, pregnant welfare recipients or those with small children won't join. Recipients with drug problems are screened out, and recipients who want further schooling typically reject the offer to enroll in C-DAP. Furthermore, it appears that only churches are willing to make the long-term volunteer investment required of C-DAP mentors. Agee originally thought that service organizations, such as the Kiwanis or Rotary clubs, might be willing to help, but they turned her down. "They weren't willing to work as labor-intensively with a family for six months or more," she says.

While C-DAP is succeeding in helping recipients achieve independence from the dole, my study of 13 program participants shows the enormous difficulties of obtaining true self-sufficiency. "We and the public are learning," Agee reports, "that there are multiple issues for almost every family that is eligible for assistance. Most of the [C-DAP] participants have spiraled downward pretty far. They've exhausted their own resources and those of their families and friends." The relatively small number of C-DAP's success stories could lead one to question the initiative's value. Critics of welfare reform might argue that C-DAP's record proves that the challenge of moving needy families from dependence to self-sufficiency is just too great for private citizens; that only government with its large resources can handle it. In reality, though, the contrary is true. C-DAP provides a vivid and sobering reminder of why welfare reform was necessary. …

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