The Common Good
May-June 1997

The Hurricane is Coming

by Jim Wallis | May-June 1997

The nation’s social welfare policy is changing
dramatically, and the religious community will play a vital
role in the transition to something new.

The nation’s social welfare policy is changing dramatically, and the religious community will play a vital role in the transition to something new. Around the country, many church-based groups working with the poor are deeply concerned about the scale of need they fear we may soon confront.

Millions of poor people dependent on old welfare programs will soon be in desperate need of alternatives. Religious groups who haven’t worked (or even spoken) with each other for years are beginning to talk and cooperate. Why? Because they believe a hurricane is coming. And when a hurricane is coming and you’re passing the sandbags to the next person, you don’t ask if they are liberal or conservative.

In his February speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Clinton made a telling remark about welfare reform, perhaps responding to the atmosphere of spiritual introspection and self-criticism. Clinton said about the old welfare system, "We didn’t change it; we tore it down; we threw it away."

Indeed. Welfare has yet to be changed into something different; that is still emerging in states around the nation. Most religious leaders who opposed the welfare bill strongly believed that an alternative should have been created before the old system was destroyed, and are hurriedly trying to put those alternatives in place. Many of the religious groups who supported the welfare bill say that Christians now have a moral obligation to respond to those in need. If they don’t, the National Association of Evangelicals recently said, conservative Christians will rightly be judged as "hypocrites." Because those from both sides of the welfare debate are now vitally interested in creating alternatives, some common ground may be emerging.

Talk to any church-based service providers, and you hear the same fear in their voices. Without national standards or the former federal safety nets—and with major budget cuts for poor people’s programs—they can all feel the storm coming.

THE STORM squall has already begun, and we’re beginning to see the human consequences. Single adults looking for work have already begun to lose their food stamps. In early March, jobless people had a question for those serving them soup in a makeshift food line on the U.S. Capitol lawn. "How do they expect us to eat?" they asked.

Elderly and disabled immigrants who will soon lose their benefit checks are quietly telling Catholic Charities caseworkers that suicide might be their best solution. Families of disabled children who will lose their extra support say they don’t know where to turn. And welfare mothers are beginning fearfully to realize that they and their children are going to be cut off, whether they can find work or not. At our Sojourners Neighborhood Center in inner-city Washington, D.C., you can feel the panic beginning. The jobs, training, child care, and transportation needed for the much heralded transition from welfare to work are not yet in sight.

The nation is now engaged in a highly dangerous process of social engineering, risking poor people and their children to the politics of myriad untested state and local welfare schemes. Millions of poor people, many of them children, are in danger of falling through the cracks of a highly uneven patchwork system of "welfare reform."

However, the crisis generated by welfare’s abrupt demolition could well create opportunities for collaboration between old political adversaries. Many conservatives who campaigned for the welfare bill now appear to be quite sobered. The old system, with all its controversies, has been destroyed, as the president said. Government programs can no longer be blamed for poverty, and the poor will soon be at our doors—all of our doors, regardless of political persuasion.

Key conservative evangelicals, some who long opposed government welfare programs, now are quite worried about what’s going to happen to poor people and are calling for their constituents to respond in new ways. Recently a very conservative evangelical leader said to me, "Christ calls us to serve the poor," and he’s determined to press his business friends to hire welfare recipients. Conservative writers are calling on those who supported the welfare bill to take responsibility for the situation their political advocacy has helped create. The leader of one of the fastest-growing conservative Christian movements in the country confessed to me, "We need God to give us a heart for the poor."

The Christian Coalition’s new "Samaritan Project" is designed to put combating poverty on the group’s agenda for the first time. Although many Democrats and liberal religious groups denounced the effort as an insincere political trick, others are welcoming the Coalition’s initiative without endorsing their particular legislative agenda. They are inviting the conservative group to the table, and will seek to hold them accountable to their words. The Call to Renewal, initially formed to offer an alternative voice to the Religious Right, has invited Ralph Reed to work with other religious groups seeking to overcome poverty and racism.

IN LATE APRIL a religious round table—held in Philadelphia in conjunction with the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future—brought together a wide spectrum of Christian groups to confront the critical situation facing America’s poor. This discussion among diverse Christian leaders could be the beginning of a crucial collaboration to respond to the crisis facing "the least of these."

The small "working meeting" in Philadelphia drew participants from key constituency groups—evangelical, Catholic, historic black churches, mainline Protestant, and pentecostal. The goal of the meeting was to seek a more "spiritual politics"—especially on the issue of what happens to poor people—and to begin to take people at their word and then hold them to it, instead of attacking their motives.

The Philadelphia summit stressed the role of citizen action, which is central to any real solutions. But citizen action by itself will not be enough. Part of the role of the religious community at such an event is to offer a prophetic word. To help offer that word, I accepted an invitation to serve as co-chair of the "faith communities" involvement in the summit.

In this critical transition period, it is extremely important that "churches and charities" not accept the role of merely cleaning up the mess from bad social policy. It is simply impossible for religious and other non-profit organizations to take up the whole burden of social welfare by themselves; the need is far too great. Furthermore, a merely private, charitable approach to social welfare would be an affront to prophetic religion, which also holds kings, rulers, judges, and employers accountable to the demands of justice.

Government on all levels has a critical role to play in responding to the crisis—as does business, from small companies to large corporations. We need new partnerships between government, business, churches, and service providers. The church has to lead by example, rally the larger society to take increased responsibility for our poorest citizens, and hold government morally accountable for how public policy treats the most vulnerable among us.

This could be a new moment. A fresh opportunity exists for us finally to do something about America’s persistent and pernicious poverty, instead of just arguing over the welfare state. It’s time to turn our attention to the great moral task of overcoming poverty in the richest nation in the world—something neither conservatives nor liberals have really been talking about for many years. We have been arguing about ending welfare instead of ending massive poverty in the world’s leading superpower.

There is a growing consensus that overcoming poverty will be a spiritual as well as political task. Moral as well as economic transformations are required, among both the poor and the affluent.

In President Clinton’s inaugural, State of the Union, and Prayer Breakfast speeches, he quoted Isaiah 58:12 to remind us that we should all be "repairers of the breach," in obvious reference to the great divisions that now separate us. If we are going to quote the Bible, we are accountable to what it says.

A fuller reading of that Isaiah text instructs us "to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free....to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house....Then shall your light rise like the dawn, and your healing come quickly." It appears our own health and well-being are caught up in our treatment of the weakest and most vulnerable among us. This applies to the president on down to the rest of us.

IF WE ARE TO approach the lofty task of being "the repairers of the breach," a new call to action will be necessary. A new mobilization will be required on a level we haven’t seen before, combining the energy of the churches and non-profits with both business and government. A new strategy will be required based on empowering small-scale projects closest to the problems while tapping the moral strength of religious communities. A new collection of resources will be required, making a moral claim on shrinking public budgets, but also on the profits of corporations and the purses of religious and philanthropic institutions, as well as on personal consumption. Finally, a new accountability will be required, holding us all responsible for the plight of the poor—especially political, economic, civic, media, and religious leaders.

The federal safety nets destroyed by the welfare bill must be replaced by community safety nets, created by all of us. Families and communities must be reconstructed as the primary building blocks of society, and jobs with a future must be developed. Mentoring relationships must guarantee that young people aren’t left behind; and safe, secure, and affordable housing must be created. Education and medical care must be as available to children with poor parents as those with affluent ones.

Yes, when preparing for a coming hurricane, people don’t ask each other about their political affiliations. When disaster hits, clean-up groups don’t divide into task forces of liberals and conservatives. To repair the breach will require a coming together that we have not seen for many years. But it is time to come together, because the hurricane is coming.

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