Reforming Welfare

If you visit Ottawa County in Western Michigan you will find no able-bodied person on welfare. This quiet community has plenty of jobs and a good economy, and was the first in the nation to achieve the goal of moving everyone on welfare to work. It also has something else—a strong network of Christian Reformed churches that organized to provide support for families making the transition.

The Good Samaritan Ministries, which coordinated the church-based safety net for families, has been around for 30 years doing what they call "relational ministries." Concretely, that means that for a long time Ottawa County churches have been doing a lot more than clothing drives. They have been engaging in the kind of intentional relationships with poor people in their area that truly transform lives—for those in need, but just as important for those who respond. In fact, Good Samaritan Ministries executive director Bill Raymond says their main client is the church, and he believes that ministry is essential to reviving faith.

When welfare reform came down the road, a whole new challenge presented itself. Raymond and other church leaders there are quick to point out that it is not the role of the churches to replace government. However, when Ottawa County was targeted as one of the first sights for Michigan’s aggressive and ambitious Project Zero welfare reform plan, they knew they had to do something. CRC pastor David Kool said, "We can look at a 700-person caseload and see we can do it." That meant that any family making the transition from welfare to work was offered the option of entering into a mentoring partnership with a church. About a third of the families made that choice.

Each family is assigned a team of four to six church people. A team leader provides the primary emotional tie and support; another team member deals with budget counseling; another addresses resource procurement; and yet another takes on transportation. A formal mentoring association lasts six to 12 months, with informal relationships continuing after that. Team members may step in to baby-sit a sick child so a parent can go to work, marshall church members to repair a car or house, or just offer encouragement when it is needed. The Good Samaritan Ministries staff provides support, resources, and advice to the church teams.

ONE PARTICULARLY interesting and unique aspect of this program is the role of Christ Memorial Church, an affluent CRC church in Holland, Michigan. They have put together a fund to make no-interest loans to pay off bad debt, pay high-rate loans, and encourage financial stability. The church has experienced a 90 percent repayment rate.

That these suburban and rural area churches have opened themselves up so completely to embrace the lives of the poor is truly impressive. Western Michigan tends to be very conservative and Republican. Many in the area supported the welfare reform legislation when it was debated in Congress. Good Samaritan Ministries called their community to accountability for their support of this bill, and they responded.

In the midst of this exceptional effort, it is important to be mindful of some hard realities. It remains to be seen if this model will work as well in the rest of the state, or in areas without the good economy that Ottawa County enjoys. Just up the road in Grand Rapids, initial efforts to organize churches has not seen the kind of response necessary to address the need. In a recent study on welfare reform, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that Detroit had a shortfall of 75,000 entry-level jobs. The churches cannot fix that.

But most troubling is that the child care, transportation, and other subsidies that have transformed the minimum wage jobs held by most former welfare recipients in Ottawa County into living incomes will soon run out. That is when the true test of the churches and welfare reform will occur. Will the churches allow those they have nurtured so faithfully to fall back into poverty, or will they find their prophetic voice to speak up? Stay tuned.

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