Get with the Program: Mainline Churches Drag Their Feet on Welfare Reform

By Sherman, Amy L. | The American Enterprise, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

Get with the Program: Mainline Churches Drag Their Feet on Welfare Reform


Sherman, Amy L., The American Enterprise


Everyone's enthusiastic these days about increasing the role of private charities--especially religious charities--in helping poor families. Everyone, that is, except some religious groups themselves. Congressional supporters of welfare reform hoped that the new law would invigorate private charitable initiatives. They even included in the bill language explicitly protecting the religious integrity and freedom of faith-based groups that accept governmental funds to expand their ministries (the so-called Ashcroft Charitable Choice provisions). But, tragically, instead of rising to the challenge of increased service opportunities, major segments of the religious community have lashed out against welfare reform.

A joint statement by the National Council of Churches, the Congress of National Black Churches, and the Synagogue Council of America, for example, alleges that welfare reform "violates the tenets of faith--mercy and justice." John Carr of the United States Catholic Conference said approval of the welfare bill marked "a sad day for America." The national headquarters of the Episcopal Church criticized the reform bill as an "inappropriate and brutal instrument." Left-wing evangelical Jim Wallis argued that Clinton's signature on the law "sacrificed hundreds of thousands of poor children" to the President's bid for reelection. David Beckmann of Bread for the World was "appalled" at the legislation and insisted that "virtually all the charities of the religious organizations in the country" oppose the law.

Apparently, Beckmann and company have neglected to consult with numerous people who actually work with the poor. John Perkins, an African-American evangelical who founded the Christian Community Development Association (composed of approximately 250 faith-based poverty-fighting groups), has long been an outspoken critic of the welfare system and an advocate of reform. For years, Rev. Gerald Austin of the Center for Urban Missions in inner-city Birmingham has lamented how the entitlement system induces families to "make peace with poverty." Rev. Tony Evans of The Urban Alternative (which helps inner-city youth in Dallas) tells his mostly black congregation that nobody should be on welfare because of its corrosive effects. (Evans' church operates an elaborate outreach to poor families that provides emergency cash assistance as well as long-term aid in the form of job training and placement programs.) These and many other frontline workers in face-to-face relationships with poor people believe that serious alterations to the welfare system are necessary, and that the new law takes important steps toward a better model of compassion.

The new legislation is not perfect, but is it really "appalling" and "brutal" to ask able-bodied, childless individuals to work half-time in order to receive food stamps? Is it really "destructive" and "morally reprehensible" for the government to withhold cash payments to drug addicts, or to require single women to help establish the paternity of their children, or to insist that teenage moms stay in school?

These features of the new legislation are just the sorts of measures that many successful faith-based groups working at the grassroots have employed in their own outreach programs. Lawndale Community Church, which has revitalized several blocks in inner-city Chicago, asks able-bodied people to work for a short period--vacuuming, cleaning, setting up rooms--in exchange for emergency cash assistance or groceries. The workers of STEP 13, a faith-based outreach to drug abusers in Denver, never give money to addicts or alcoholics) they offer tough love instead. Religious groups working with at-risk teenagers in Washington and Phoenix preach sexual abstinence and reward kids who finish high school. In a deliberately counter-cultural move, many faith-based groups encourage people who are hurting not to view themselves exclusively as victims but as God's children, capable of assuming responsibility for their actions. …

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