The Catholic Church Will Not Allow Government to Abandon the Poor

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 29, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Church Will Not Allow Government to Abandon the Poor


Donald Devine, in his Dec. 18 Commentary column on churches and welfare reform ("Churches - and the welfare state"), fails to provide pertinent facts concerning the Catholic Church's involvement in Maryland's welfare-reform effort.

Some legislative history is in order. Maryland's welfare-reform legislation, considered by the General Assembly this year, contained two provisions that would have severely penalized families and children for certain behaviors deemed unacceptable by Maryland lawmakers. The first provision would have removed a family, after only a month, from cash-assistance eligibility for the failure of a mother to engage in work activities. A second provision, known as the "family cap" or "child exclusion," would have withheld cash support for a child ($74 a month) born into a family 10 months after that family became eligible for welfare.

The Maryland Catholic Conference opposed these provisions. As a compromise, the legislature amended the "family cap" to require the state to provide a "child-specific benefit" to a family for a penalized newborn child, enabling the purchase of such items as baby clothing, formula or diapers. Nothing in the statute gives details on how the "child-specific benefit" should be administered.

In order to assist families deprived of cash assistance for failure to work, the General Assembly also drafted language that requires the state to pay "transitional assistance" on behalf of a penalized family to a nonprofit organization. The nonprofit organization, which is paid a monthly amount equal to the welfare grant for up to three months, is required to use this meager sum to provide "housing, counseling, or other services" to aid the family.

In implementing these provisions, the state initially proposed using churches as third-party payees for families eligible for the child-specific benefit and transitional assistance. Not only would churches be expected to administer the benefits for families, but they also would, under the state plan, be required to file monthly reports and perform other bureaucratic tasks normally performed by government. They might also subject themselves to legal liability issues from which the government has immunity. In other words, churches were being asked to transform themselves into social-service instrumentalities of government.

Under these two provisions of Maryland's welfare-reform law, government - not the Catholic Church - is "washing its hands" of poor families and expecting the religious community once again to fill the void. Unlike Mr. Devine, the Church believes that government, as the servant of all the people, has a moral responsibility to care for the poorest among us.

The Church continues to serve those whom government abandons. Mr. Devine diminishes the contributions the Church has made for years to the social welfare of communities throughout Maryland. His intimation that the religious community is "washing its hands" of the poor also derides the church volunteers who daily work in parishes, shelters for the homeless and soup kitchens to provide assistance to those in their community who have fallen through the state's increasingly porous safety net. …

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