Faith Communities and
the Post-Reform Safety Net
Mary Jo Bane 1
Religious politics has often enough been intolerant and threatening to democracy. But the real threat to democracy now is more likely to come from the rampant self-interest that thwarts all efforts at social and political reform. At their best, churches bring into the public arena a politics of community and of compassion.
IN THIS CHAPTER, I RETURN TO THE ISSUE OF WELFARE, with which the seminar that generated this book began. The pivotal event, for welfare reform in the 1990s as well as for the thinking of contributors to this volume, was the passage of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act. Now, almost five years after its passage, it seems clear that there has been a dramatic change in both the size and the character of the welfare system in the United States without a similarly dramatic decrease in poverty or hardship. This, in turn, has changed the context of the debate about poverty and injustice, has expanded the range of relevant policy alternatives and has the potential for changing politics and the rhetorical framework in which the debate is conducted.
This chapter examines the challenges and opportunities for involvement by religious organizations in this new context. It examines the role that churches, and in particular the Catholic Church, played in welfare reform during the 1990s. The examination is offered as a useful background for considering a possible new role for churches in the new policy context. It then argues that the times provide both a new need and a new opportunity for more effective involvement.
I focus on the activities of the Catholic Church in advocating for welfare policy and in providing social safety net services as an example of a large (indeed the largest), well-organized, mainstream and largely progressive religious organiza-