Welfare

Time to Come to Washington

For those who care about poverty in America, the coming months are a critical time, a turning point similar to the New Deal of the 1930s or the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Now, as then, we can make a difference in the lives of millions of people. It is a time for people of faith to speak, act, and pray on behalf of those still trapped in poverty.

In 1996, after much contentious debate, Congress passed historic welfare reform legislation. Direct federal cash assistance to people in poverty was ended, consolidated into block grants to the states—known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. The intention of the program was a change in paradigm from welfare to work.

Five years later, the track record is mixed. Welfare rolls have been reduced by 50 percent, partly due to the new emphasis and partly due to an economy that was—for most of that time—booming. The overall poverty rate and the child poverty rate have both declined.

Yet too many working people remain poor. Their jobs are mostly entry-level and minimum wage with few or no benefits. Many are only part-time. Twelve million children are still in poverty. State assistance has evolved from welfare into a wide array of work support programs, including job training, child care, transportation, and housing, and other benefits such as food stamps and health insurance programs.

THIS SUMMER, Congress is debating the reauthorization of the TANF program. What's the best way to build on the undeniable successes and make changes to improve the weaknesses of welfare reform? There are several key areas where we should focus our efforts.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2002
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A Covenant to Care

In 1999, Presidential hopefuls Al Gore and George W. Bush and other politicians called for a revolution in welfare provision: expand the role faith-based organizations (FBOs) play in meeting needs and delivering services. Why the reformation? They contended it was because FBOs can do something that government programs cannot: They provide the spiritual and moral transformation that most welfare recipients require to become responsible, independent adults—independent from government support, independent from drugs and alcohol, and independent from the cycle of violence and abuse.

What happens then to government's role in welfare provision? The state becomes a "limited" partner, providing the funding and support for FBOs to do their miracle work, eliminating unnecessary bureaucratic red tape, and offering a strategic place at the policymaking table.

For most Christians, moving from a welfare state to a more caring welfare society makes sense of the biblical challenge to "love your neighbor as yourself." Christian social ethics provides further support in the Protestant emphasis on covenant community and the Catholic principle of "subsidiarity." The biblical vision of covenant community is one that fully values all persons, even the poor and powerless. This inclusivity is most clearly seen in those aspects of the biblical covenant that protect the marginalized and vulnerable members of society (for example, Exodus 22:21-27; Deuteronomy 24:17-22). Covenant also stresses mutual obligation and responsibility. Members of the community bind their lives together, entrust themselves to one other, and promise to care for each other. Therefore they have responsibilities to create a community in which all can thrive.

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A Great National Sin

In deciding whether or not to sign the Republican welfare bill, Bill Clinton faced the most serious moral test of his presidency. It was, as several observers said, "a defining moment." He failed that test and more clearly than ever defined the character problem that has dogged his entire political career.

Clinton, smart but political, realized that this was a bad bill, but signed it anyway in a strategic retreat from previous principles. The results could be a disaster for poor families and children, but Bill Clinton did make it more certain that he will be re-elected. Since compassionate Christians care deeply about the former, many will care much less about the latter. Since Clinton has already offended many Christians on the issue of abortion, angering more of them on the treatment of the poor could prove significant.

Most in the religious community do favor a more decentralized, effective, and values-centered approach that would actually alleviate poverty. But the six-decade national commitment to provide a federal safety net for the poor was simply dismantled by this bill and replaced with block grants—of less federal money—to the states, without any uniform national standards or accountability. The poor of Mississippi must now trust their fate to the social conscience of their state's legislators and to Gov. Kirk Fordice—who cynically offered to buy each welfare recipient an alarm clock as his state's contribution to welfare reform.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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A Proud Welfare Queen

I am a welfare queen. There, I've said it. It is really hard to admit it publicly, especially now that we (did I say we?) are being assigned primary responsibility for adding zeros onto the national debt. But it's true. Now wait, before you dial up the "turn-in-a-welfare-queen hotline," give me a chance

to defend myself. It snuck up on me, honest.

See, up until recently I've never owned my own four walls and a roof. Like most other welfare queens (irony is, in those days I was not a we), I just wrote out a monthly check to my landlord and that was it. I never saw the money again once it went down that dark hole.

Then last year I bought a home. So now, instead of sending a check to a schmuck who lives out in the suburbs and works at a bank, I send a check to a schmuck who works at a bank and lives out in the suburbs. Not that earth-shattering a change, really. Or so I thought.

But my world began to crumble last week when I got this official-looking letter in the mail informing me that I was now eligible for a new program. The message was terse: "Congratulations. You are now living in subsidized housing."

It turns out that every single penny that I had sent that schmuck in the bank was going to be subtracted from my taxable earnings. In short, I was in line for a balloon payment from Uncle Sam. Sure, they gussied up the language with technical terms like "mortgage interest" and "income deductions," but I knew. It was nothing but...[gulp]...public assistance.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1995
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What to Do About the Poor

When Newt Gingrich talks these days about his concern for the poor, I wonder if something new and good might happen-or something terrible. In his first speech as the new Speaker of the House, the conservative Republican leader said many things that, as an inner-city pastor, I was glad to hear. I, too, long for a "Monday morning" when no children have been killed over the weekend. I, too, believe the crisis we face in this country is, at root, moral and spiritual.

Perhaps it is time for a fresh conversation about what to do about the poor. We need the debate on welfare, now beginning in Congress, to open up that conversation. For too long, liberals and conservatives have been talking past each other and simply blaming the other side for the poverty and violence that have grown out of control. Meanwhile the kids in my neighborhood are being shot in their streets; just a few weeks ago a 14-year-old shot another teen-ager in the lobby of Cardozo High School, two blocks from where I live.

What can we now agree on, and where do the real issues lie? Government has indeed grown too big and too removed from ordinary citizens, including the poor. The impulse for compassion has degenerated into government structures with a more harsh than human face. Those of us who live and work in the urban war zones in this country can testify that the institutions of the welfare state have not resolved the crushing issues of poverty in America. And it is a fair criticism to conclude sadly that for too many, welfare has become not another chance but a way of life that results in dependency and despair.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1995
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