Little Miracles: How Churches Are Responding to Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

Supporters and critics of welfare reform agree on at least one thing: Such a momentous change in many Americans' way of life won't succeed without a vigorous increase in outreach to the poor by private institutions, particularly churches. The first responses by churches, though they may not seem dramatic, offer cause for hope. In the relatively brief period since the federal government enacted welfare reform, thousands of church members around the nation have linked arms with individuals trying to make the shift from dependence to work.

Mississippi's Faith & Families program, the country's first major effort to match families on welfare with church members willing to provide financial, practical, and emotional support, has reached 350 families. More than half are now off of cash welfare, and the program has been copied in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Indiana.

In Texas, 219 churches have joined Pathfinder Families, helping 230 welfare recipients trying to find work under Texas's strict time limits.

In Michigan, approximately 50 churches in Ottawa County have helped 60 families exit welfare in just over a year through the Project Zero initiative.

Twenty-one congregations in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, have helped 30 families obtain jobs and leave public assistance through the Community-directed Assistance Program. Two other Maryland counties are reviewing the program with an eye toward possibly emulating it.

In San Diego, a coalition of churches has joined with the Department of Social Services to influence welfare recipients in four poor city neighborhoods. The churches also maintain a "help desk" at the downtown central welfare office that links needy individuals to private-sector resources. A coalition of churches in Charlotte, North Carolina, established a similar "help desk" last fall and is developing a mentoring program to aid newly employed welfare recipients in retaining their jobs.

Church-based welfare-to-work mentoring initiatives are also under development in Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington state. And churches are responding to welfare reform in other ways, too. Some, like my own congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia, are pursuing a "neighborhood adoption" model, which focuses a church's financial and human resources on one low-income community. Others have begun 1, "agency adoption" programs, in which churches make money, goods, and volunteers available to a particular social service agency, such as Child Protective Services. In Miami, a coalition of 70 churches has helped 700 elderly and disabled legal immigrants adversely affected by welfare reform. In short, throughout the country, churches of all sizes, stripes, and denominations--white and black, rich and poor, urban and suburban--are intentionally reaching out to needy families. While they have yet to make an appreciable impact relative to the nation's enormous welfare caseload, they have worked some miracles.

Ottawa County, one of the six sites in Michigan's Project Zero, recently became the first locality in the United States to move every able-bodied welfare recipient into a job. Governor John Engler credited churches with much of the achievement. The county's Family Independence Agency (FIA), which administers welfare, contracted with a church-based nonprofit called the Good Samaritan Center in July 1996 to mobilize and train church volunteers to mentor and support families moving from welfare to work. The Center convinced nearly 60 churches--about 25 percent of the county's total--to sign up. One of its recruits, Harderwyk Christian Church, exemplifies the full-court press that the religious community can unleash when aiding struggling low-income families. Harderwyk took on six Project Zero applicants, including 24-year-old Rosalinda Ortiz.

Rosalinda had her first child when she was 14. She and her husband, a 15-year-old illegal immigrant, dropped out of high school, and eked out a sparse existence on his meager earnings until immigration authorities deported him. …