Magazine article The Christian Century

Churches Worry about Welfare

Magazine article The Christian Century

Churches Worry about Welfare

Article excerpt

ACROSS THE country, churches and charitable organizations are eying with concern promised slashes in welfare assistance. Already some social service programs have fallen victim to municipal and state budget axes. The cuts are likely to get deeper in coming months as the Republican-dominated Congress considers chopping social-welfare spending and shifting more and more of the burden to the private sector.

Such policies are spurring vigorous debate about the proper role of churches and charities in addressing America's most vexing social problems. Can private institutions fill the costly breach created by government cutbacks - and should they be expected to?

Many experts are wary. It's a troubling argument, one that has to be looked at very closely, precisely because government support is such an integral part of the balance sheet of a lot of these agencies," says Alan Abramson, an expert in nonprofit institutions at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. Pastor and ethicist J. Phillip Wogaman of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., where President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole attend frequently, worries that putting primary social service responsibilities in the hands of churches and other nongovernmental institutions will shift the burden of care to a narrow segment of society.

"Not everyone belongs to a church," Wogaman says. I think it would be reprehensible for American society to abandon the poor. You can judge the moral health of a community by its [commitment] to the weakest members of the community." Many leaders of church-run social agencies argue that looking to the private sector to compensate for budget cuts would only heighten problems such as teen violence, teen pregnancy, spouse abuse and homelessness.

"The government has a role to play, and it should not abdicate that role maintains Megan McLaughlin, executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies in New York City. It's "make believe," she says, to suggest that financially strapped agencies like those she represents can do more on the social welfare front. "The ability of organizations to pick up the shortfall is about zero," adds Harvey Newman, executive director of health and human services for the United jewish Appeal in New York. If churches and synagogues were to fill social and personal needs created by the expected withdrawal of funds, they "would require additional resources coming from the general public, and there's no reason to assume that will occur," Newman said.

Edward Earl Johnson of Harlem's Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, which operates a food pantry, soup kitchen and recycled-clothing shop, echoes McLaughlin's sentiment. "Most of the African-American churches are not in any position to pick up a lot of slack on a lot of things," he says. "I can assure you that, in eight out of ten [churches], they are struggling.... I know congregations that go from week to week." johnson hopes to add a publicly subsidized after-school program for youngsters to Mt. Moriah's list of services but fears that state budget cuts could affect tliose plans. "We'll probably still do it," 1-te said, "but on a smaller scale." That will mean more children left alone at home, where, he noted, "too many things happen to children."

Yet not all religious leaders believe that shifting more of the social welfare burden to the private sector is a bad idea. Some argue that Americans will-given the opportunity-be generous with donations and volunteer time. "I think the American people have an almost endless reservoir of generosity," says Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Chesapeake, Virginia, which was a prime force in the Republican sweep of Congress in November. …

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