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.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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