How the church responds to welfare reform

FOR DONNA M., A SINGLE MOM IN MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA, staying off welfare is a puzzle.

"I'm all for personal responsibility," she says. "After my husband left me, I tried lots of jobs: waitressing, factory assembly, you name it. Each time, things rolled along OK for a while. Then my luck would go bad. Like the time when my car broke down, or when my son, Matthew, got sick."

Each crisis in Donna's life affected both her job attendance and performance, resulting in a less-than-perfect job record. After her son's last hospital stay, Donna decided it made more sense to drop out of the workforce and go on welfare rather than pay expensive in-home care.

"I don't like it, but I don't see any other way. If I can't solve this piece, I can't put the rest of the puzzle together. I can't make it work."

Donna is one of thousands of welfare recipients nationwide whose greatest challenge is becoming and staying economically self-sufficient.

For years a growing chorus of politicians, social workers, and even welfare families complained that the federal system of welfare actually kept people trapped in a cycle of poverty by giving few incentives to work and being inflexible at the local level. In the early 1990s, even the U.S. bishops were calling for reforms to make welfare more humane and effective.

Congress responded, and on August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known by most people as the new federal welfare-reform law. This historic legislation set into motion tremendous changes in how public assistance is provided for the poor and vulnerable all across the United States.

The law shifts funding and control of the newly named "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families" (TANF) back to the states through block grants, places a lifetime limit of five years on a person's eligibility to receive public assistance, increases work requirements for recipients, and ends most federal benefits for noncitizens.

What has been and will be the impact of these changes?

Proponents of this particular version of welfare reform feel that local—rather than federal—control of welfare programs provides the needed flexibility to create community-based programs that truly address poverty.

Opponents claim that shifting responsibility to the states has been a disguise for saving money at the cost of abandoning the nation's poor and vulnerable. Both sides seem to agree, however, that we are involved in a great unknown experiment in social policy.

In the time since Clinton signed the new welfare law, each individual state has been working to redesign its own welfare policy and procedures. Many state legislatures around the country have debated and passed into law various aspects of their plans—relating to both funding and policy. Job training, child care, and food stamps for immigrants have needed funding. States have had to decide if they are instituting penalties, residency requirements, or shorter lifetime limits.

The voices of Catholic parishioners and leaders have played a significant role in the debates at the state level. In Virginia, for example, Bishop Walter Sullivan called upon middle-class Catholics to make a trip to the state capitol and stand side by side with legal immigrants who were facing the elimination of all public benefits.

"They helped us get access and appointments with legislators," says Juan L., a recent immigrant. "Once inside the door, we had a chance to explain why certain limited benefits were crucial for our families." The Catholic support eventually helped persuade the Virginia General Assembly to restore, among other things, funding for medical services for immigrant children.

In nearly every state debate, policymakers cited the role of the churches as a crucial piece to put welfare reform into practice. They spoke of partnerships, alliances, and building bridges with the churches. Some wanted churches to support with charity the systems that had been unraveled at the federal level.

While it is still early into the implementation of the new welfare laws, the Catholic community around the country is already responding in different ways to the changes in the welfare system. For parishes nationwide, the challenge will be to provide temporary assistance to the poor and work to remove barriers in the economy that keep people trapped in poverty.

The key question of welfare reform is this: What are the various pieces that have to be put together to help move a welfare family up and out of poverty?

Food first
One of the most basic pieces is food. Changes in the food-stamp portion of the welfare law have already affected families across America.

"We are receiving calls from all over Austin from people needing food," says a worker from St. Mary's Cathedral in Austin, Texas. "Most of these people are working but cannot feed their families on what they earn. Also, many have lost or have been refused food stamps for having a car they are paying on."

In its most recent annual report, which covered 1996, Catholic Charities USA already noted an unexpected 11-percent increase in the demand for emergency food and shelter assistance at its agencies nationwide. "We are especially startled that hunger continues at an alarming rate despite a growing economy, low unemployment, and even before the full effects of welfare reform have kicked in," said Father Fred Kammer, S.J., president of Catholic Charities USA, as he released the report last December.

In January, Catholic Charities also conducted a Welfare Reform Parish Impact Survey, which found a "sharp rise in people seeking food from parish social services." About 79 percent of the respondents from 82 dioceses reported increases for the second half of 1997 in demand for emergency food assistance; the average increase was 26 percent.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported a 16-percent increase in 1997 requests for emergency food assistance.

For Catholic parishes with existing food shelves, the task has been to educate their donors that welfare reform is increasing the usage of their shelves, requiring more cash and food donations. A similar situation is occurring in soup kitchens, where an increased demand is fueling a need for more volunteers.

Worries on the home front
For me, the problem is housing," says Cindy Townsend, a welfare recipient from Oahu, Hawaii. "Rents here are high, and they rise faster than wages do. I need help finding a stable, long-term lease that's affordable."

According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of people living in crisis-level rental housing has sharply increased in recent years to 12.5 million. "There are many new $6-an-hour jobs in America," comments Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo. "But there's no new $6-an-hour housing."

In rural parts of the western U.S., it is not uncommon for six to ten people to be living in a two-bedroom hom situation that is causing parishes to think about opening up their buildings as temporary shelters.

In St. Louis and other metropolitan areas, Catholic leaders are engaged in interfaith efforts to preserve existing low-income apartments and change zoning laws that inhibit or prohibit affordable housing.

In Catholic Charities' parish-impact survey, 50 percent of respondents reported increases in demand for emergency housing, which they attributed to welfare reform.

Child-care choices
For families on welfare, child care is another key piece to move parents into the workforce. Across the country, parishes are examining the possibility of using a portion of their buildings as day-care facilities with reduced rates for low-income families.

In Minneapolis, a group of congregations banded together to open the Agape Child Development Center, a first-of-its-kind 24-hour facility to help parents who are working evenings, night shifts, and weekends. Catholic Charities of Albany, New York is training mothers on welfare in running their own at-home day-care centers. According to Bill Przlucki, the program meets two big objectives: It offers employment to welfare recipients and increases the amount of quality, low-cost day care available to needy families.

Although many states are adding millions of dollars to child-care budgets as a result of welfare reform, there is concern already that it still may not be enough. Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, explains, "How much capacity a region has to absorb a huge influx of new kids differs from place to place around the nation. There is also great concern about maintaining the quality of care that children receive."

A recent study by the Human Resources Administration in New York City, for example, found that the city lacked child care for 61 percent of the children whose mothers are supposed to participate in welfare-to-work programs this year. Despite a legislated promise that officials would find two choices of safe, free child care for all mothers who needed it, the study found that three quarters of the mothers in the programs are relying on unlicensed baby sitters.

"The lucky ones enlist trusted relatives or close friends," notes the New York Times. "The less fortunate leave their sons and daughters in crowded, dirty apartments with caretakers they barely know."

In several states, churches have joined with business leaders in calling for waivers that would allow them to operate child-care centers under more relaxed regulation than state law currently specifies. This trend raises serious safety issues when services for poor families are not required to meet the same standards as for other groups.

Transportation troubles
Walter R a former welfare recipient from Missouri, spends two hours on the road each day to comply with work requirements. He complains that the bus system is designed around getting suburban people into the city in the morning and out by early evening. "But in the St. Louis area," explains Walter, "the best paying jobs are moving out to the suburbs. It's too costly for me to live out there; and as a third-shift worker, I have little or no access to public transportation."

In Worcester, Massachusetts several parishes have tried to address the transportation gap by enlisting volunteers to drive people to and from county welfare offices, grocery stores, and medical appointments. These parish efforts, however, are only capable of providing crisis transportation.

In places like Phoenix and Dallas, parishes are trying to address the longer-term transportation issues by building community support for ballot initiatives to increase funding for buses and flexible van pools.

Wages that work
Although obtaining food, shelter, child care, and transportation are all important needs for the welfare-to-work family, perhaps the most basic and the most problematic requirement is finding and keeping a living-wage job.

Frank Eberle, a Catholic deacon and small-business owner in Covington, Kentucky, encountered this firsthand when he tried to hire low-income people.

"There are a lot of issues that get in the way: financial issues, cultural issues, sometimes chemical dependency," says Mac Johnson, who worked with Eberle. "What was

needed was a supportive work environment for adults who basically have the work experience of an average teenager."

This gave birth to the Industrial Network, an effort by churches designed to give individuals an opportunity to gain valuable work experience through entry-level jobs in the hotel, restaurant, and appliance-repair industries.

There is a growing understanding that moving people from welfare to work involves both job skills like industrial training or a computer background and "soft skills" like résumé writing and office etiquette.

One example of the Catholic Church's effort to meet these twin needs is the Wisconsin Transition to Employment program. Rita V., a participant from Superior, Wisconsin is one of several hundred people each year who are participating in a 90-day course emphasizing the importance of being timely, flexible, and a team player on the job. "I've learned a lot," Rita says, "and I'm especially excited about working at the nursing home and constantly improving my job skills. For me, this is the way out."

Another approach to the issue of job training is not to invent a new church-based program, but to learn about a state's current job-training program and hold officials accountable for producing real results for welfare-to-work particpants. In Los Angeles, a coalition of religious, union, and community-based groups have formed the Metro Alliance, an effort dedicated to seeing that California's private-industry councils live up to their mission of delivering meaningful job creation and job training. Such efforts can make a big difference; public-job training systems can offer thousands of people the skills they need to get a livable-wage job.

One church, one family
For the person about to move from welfare to work, each of these pieces of self-sufficiency—getting a job, finding affordable housing and day care, transportation—can be quite difficult. Taken together, the puzzle can be overwhelming.

In the past, Catholics have responded to the needs of the unemployed through parish-based support groups. For years, St. Mary of the Lake Parish in White Bear Lake, Minnesota has sponsored the Jobs in Transition network, providing the unemployed with job leads, advice, support, and even a baby sitter for an important job interview.

Now, in the era of welfare-to-work, the needs of families are even greater. Parishes are beginning to provide mentoring programs, which offer welfare-to-work families emotional, spiritual, and social support.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, the diocesan Social Action Office is collaborating with a children's advocacy group in providing training to help parishes establish mentoring programs. Each parish is being encouraged to help one family make the transition from welfare to work and self-sufficiency.

St. Louis Catholic Church in Austin, Texas is part of Family Pathfinders, a closely watched mentoring program coordinated by the state of Texas' comptroller, John Sharp. Sharp credits the idea for the program in part to Austin Bishop John McCarthy and a diocesan social-ministry program called "One Church, One Family," which has matched parishes with struggling families. McCarthy chairs the Family Pathfinders Advisory Committee and praises the program for giving parishes "an opportunity to get in touch with a specific family struggling for independence to see that family succeed, to see children with eyes that have hope and optimism because they can anticipate a better life."

While the Texas Workforce Commission provides services to help families move off welfare, faith congregations as well as businesses and civic groups are encouraged to form teams of three to eight volunteers to work one-on-one with an assigned family. Family Pathfinders help families with finding resources in the community, solving problems they encounter, and planning for emergencies, or by simply listening and encouraging them—things that government agencies do not often provide.

Volunteers at St. Louis Church, for example, helped a family of seven find safe housing after their eviction from a dilapidated rental house. The mother had been forced to quit her job because of a broken leg. Now, out of a cast, she is receiving tutoring from Family Pathfinders for her General Educational Development (GED) certificate, and she volunteers at St. Louis to gain clerical and computer skills.

Texas churches that choose to participate in a mentoring group tale part in a four-hour training session. Family Pathfinders supports both the mentoring team and family on a continuing basis. To date, the program has matched some 360 families with mentoring groups; the one at St. Louis Parish is one of about two dozen Catholic church groups in the program.

It's not enough
All of these examples of providing direct services—from food to housing, transportation to child care, job skills to ESL classes—demonstrate that early in the wake of welfare reform, the Catholic community is responding in a quick and compassionate manner.That response heartens those like Patrick Fagan, a Fitzgerald Fellow for Family and Cultural Studies at the Heritage Institute, who have been counting on churches to fill the gaps left in the wake of welfare reform. "Look to Wisconsin," says Fagan, "where welfare reform has been implemented for the longest time. There has been such a reduction of the welfare rolls in counties that made changes over a year ago. That experience proves that for the limited number of families that still remain in need, the churches can certainly absorb and assist them."

Fagan's view reflects a poor understanding of "people in need," counters Catholic Charities' Sharon Daly. Yes, Wisconsin has drastically reduced the number of people on its welfare rolls. "But that does not mean they have fewer people in need. Many of those who have been kicked off welfare are in worse need than ever. And even those who have found $5-an-hour jobs continue to be in need. Both of these groups are coming to our emergency food and shelter in greater numbers today. We define `being in need' as not having enough money to provide the essentials for one's family."

Counting on the churches to fill the gap is a dangerous illusion, according to Father Kammer. "As admirable as the churches' myriad of services is," he says, "it is simply not enough. The magnitude of the cuts—$55 billion over the next five years—is very difficult for the average person to comprehend.

"It's hard to imagine that in the next two to five years, over 1 million women and children will lose [their welfare benefits] because of time limits and the failure to find work. It's hard to grasp that to compensate for the annual $10 billion dollars in federal cuts to the poor, all private human services (including United Way, Catholic Charities, and other organizations) would have to more than double their current contributions. It's that huge."

Parishes are responding as best they can, but some are beginning to feel overwhelmed by the rising demand for assistance. One of the parish social ministers cited in Catholic Charities' parish impact survey laments: "We are at our wits' end maintaining current support levels."

In addition to the scale of the cuts, serious questions are already being raised about how much is reasonable to ask of volunteers. "The problems of troubled children, needy seniors, and the poor require a different type of volunteering," says author Michael Gerson. "It must be performed one-on-one, over a long period of time, and often in low-income neighborhoods. And for this type of assistance there is a shortage of volunteers." Gerson cites studies showing that only 7 to 15 percent of volunteering done through churches goes on outside church walls, in the community. "Most volunteers help the men's club and the choir, not the downtown soup kitchen."

Welfare reform does offer the potential to engage many more Catholics in putting their faith into action through direct services with the poor. "Having direct contact with the poor," says pastoral minister Katie Swenson, "offers Catholics an opportunity to increase their understanding of the obstacles to getting out of poverty."

Some social-action leaders worry that parishes may respond with half—only the charity half—of the church's social mission: providing direct services to the poor (food, clothing, transit) without addressing the root causes of poverty (low wages, ineffective bus systems). A key test of the success of welfare reform will be whether other institutions in society—the business community, the education system, and others—will become true partners with the churches in helping welfare families put together the many pieces required for their self-sufficiency.

What happens if a welfare recipient cannot find work by the end of the time limit? Many communities are implementing plans for what is commonly called workfare. People who cannot find private-sector employment will have to perform community service (leaf raking, street sweeping) in order to receive benefits. For Catholics, workfare raises serious questions of justice, including whether welfare workers will be treated with the same human dignity as other workers. Will they retain their rights to safe working conditions? Will union workers be displaced by workfare participants?

Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), a church-based organization in Los Angeles County, is guiding an effort to raise all of these justice issues. They are important questions for both public employers and nonprofits and churches, many of whom may be asked to take on workfare participants.

Out-of-wedlock births
Over the long term, some believe that perhaps the most profound influence of the federal welfare reform on U.S. society will be felt in the reduction of out-of-wedlock births. Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute explains: "Almost a third of all recipients go on welfare as a result of such births. Those illegitimate children are often brought up in situations of domestic abuse, drug use, etc. The welfare-reform law may prevent some of those out-of-wedlock births."

Immigrants are hit hardest

Although all families and individuals on welfare have been affected by changes in the law, perhaps the most affected group as a whole have been immigrants.

The federal welfare-reform law originally cut Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid for legal immigrants—a move that would have eliminated essential income for thousands of elderly and disabled immigrants. Congress reversed that decision last summer but failed to restore food stamps to nearly 1 million legal immigrants, forcing states to decide whether to fill the gap or not.

Both Catholic Charities USA and the U.S. Catholic Conference have denounced the immigrant food-stamp cuts as a "gross injustice" and made their restoration one of their top legislative priorities for 1998. At press time it looked like their lobbying was going to be at least partially successful: a portion of the cuts—food stamps for some 250,000 disabled, children, and the elderly—was on track to be restored by Congress as part of an agriculture research bill.

"Our coalition of religious, immigrant, and human-rights advocacy groups has proven that we can make a real difference," says Catholic Charities' Sharon Daly. "Last year it was the restoration of SSI and Medicare, and this year it is the food-stamp issue. I am pleased that we have been able to win back at least some of the things that we had lost in the federal welfare-reform act."

To immigrants, the far-reaching cuts in welfare benefits also were a wake-up call about the importance of becoming citizens in order to even be considered for public assistance of any kind.

As immigrants have struggled to achieve both self-sufficiency and citizenship, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes have proved to be invaluable. In many parts of the country, immigrants have complained that ESL classes at the community level fill up very quickly, are not offered enough in the evening, and are extremely difficult to get to with public transportation.

In response, some parishes have begun to offer both ESL and citizenship classes. When a small parish in Oklahoma put on an information night for people who might be interested in ESL classes, the leaders thought they might get 50 people to attend. They were shocked when more than 200 primarily Spanish-speaking people filled their church hall.

Partly because of language barriers, partly because the welfare reform provisions affecting immigrants are so complex, cities all across the country report fear and confusion about the changes. Says Sister Mary Beth Boesen of Denver, "We have immigrant parents with children who are citizens and therefore would qualify for food assistance. But the parents won't apply for food stamps because they're so scared."

One possible function for Catholic parishes is to help distribute information translated into several languages so that immigrant families can clearly understand and act on the welfare-reform changes.

Fagan of the Heritage Institute agrees. "Frankly, I am stunned at the leaders of Catholic organizations," says Fagan. "The welfare-reform law contains $50 million per year in abstinence-only sex-education funding. This is great news which you would have expected Catholic leaders to have trumpeted to their people. But the silence on this piece has been deafening."

No need to break out the trumpets, says Daly. The funds for abstinence education are certainly welcome, she says and acknowledges that Catholic schools are interested in participating. "But $1 million per state is not a lot of money, and we are also not sure that this is necessarily the best way to promote sexual abstinence among young people." Daly thinks programs with a religious-values component and mentoring are more effective. In any case, she says, "this is not the answer to everything!"

Welfare-reform watch
Ultimately the Catholic community will join the nation in watching what happens to the poor as welfare-reform policies take effect over the next few years. Monitoring the impact of welfare reform—both positive and negative—will be an important tool for determining which policies are helping or harming families.

NETWORK, a Catholic social-justice lobby based in Washington, is coordinating a nationwide monitoring effort. Called the Welfare Reform Watch Project, it has begun to gather data and stories from 10 states with high welfare populations, providing policymakers with actual stories that illustrate the impact of their decisions. Spirit of Christ Catholic Church in suburban Arvada, Colorado is one such parish that is embracing the idea of surveying the impact of welfare reform. They are part of a monitoring effort of a group called the AFDC Coalition (All Families Deserve a Chance), which has also partnered with the Latin American Research and Service Agency (LARASA), a nonprofit group focused on the Spanish-speaking population in Colorado.

All of this monitoring is geared toward future lobbying efforts, primarily at the state and county level, where welfare-law implementation will actually take place.

Catholics, however, need to be realistic about how decisions on welfare policy are made.

Kathy Tomlin, legislative coordinator for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis cautions, "We've had good statistical data in the past. But you can't assume that welfare decisions are made on a rational basis. The `race to the bottom' is now being played out at the county level, and many counties are absolutely paranoid that their region will become a `magnet community' for the poor." For example, in the St. Paul area, officials from Ramsey County recently attempted to close down a family shelter in the county for fear that it would attract too many poor families. A quick response from parish leaders was key in keeping this shelter open.

The current strong economy has softened the impact of welfare reform so far, and most welfare recipients have not yet reached the time limits that will bring an end to their benefits. The current situation is in many ways a best-case moment. Advocates are concerned that the public has been lulled into a false sense of optimism about the effects of welfare reform. They say the inevitable eventual economic downturn could bring some nasty surprises.

Over the next five years, changes will continue to be made in the way states and counties provide assistance to the poor. As these decisions are made, Catholic advocates have found that while data is important, real-life stories are even more critical in changing attitudes of policymakers.

In Albany, New York, Catholic Charities organizes an event called "Walk for a Mile in My Shoes" that educates and sensitizes lawmakers about the realities of life for people on public assistance. State legislators spend a day with a poor person, watching as they juggle the demands of child raising, homemaking, and the search for jobs. This program allows legislators to see the limited purchasing power of food stamps and the substandard housing that cash benefits can afford.

But for Donna M., back in Montgomery, Alabama, it's still just about pieces of the puzzle.

"I just want to put enough things together to get on my feet again, permanently, if I can. I don't want people's—or the church's—pity. I just want to hold my head up high again."

That may be the "bottom-line" test of whether or not welfare reform is working. As the U.S. bishops stated in their 1995 document "Moral Principles and Policy Priorities for Welfare Reform": "For the Catholic community, the measure of welfare reform is whether it will enhance the lives and dignity of poor children and their families. The target of reform ought to be poverty, not poor families. The goal of reform is reducing poverty and dependency, not cutting resources and programs." 

Joe Sullivan is the parish-organizing manager at the Catholic Charities Office for Social Justice in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"Catholic Wisdom on Welfare Reform" is a handy eight-page booklet that provides an overview and explanation of the Catholic Church's position on welfare reform. Ideal for use as parish handouts. To order (bulk discounts available), call 800-328-6515.

Salt of the Earth, Claretian Publications' online resource for social justice, offers a primer on the 1996 welfare-reform law along with an extensive collection and description of the most important Internet links on the topic.

Advofax is Catholic Charities USA's weekly fax update on current legislative actions with a strong emphasis on welfare-reform legislation on both the federal and state level. To subscribe, contact Catholic Charities USA at: 703-549-1390.

The Office for Social Justice of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis also has a good Web page on welfare reform with a collection of mythbusters and other resource links.

The Reform Organization of Welfare (ROWEL) has developed a welfare simulation that parishes and other groups around the country are using to raise awareness about the realities of living on welfare. In this two-hour program of experiential learning, 30 to 75 participants role-play the lives of low-income families. For more information or to order the Welfare Simulation Kit, contact: Rowel Education Association, phone: 314-361-3400; e-mail:

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