Unlikely alliance aids poor Welfare: Entering new territory, government is contracting with religious groups for welfare services

the move makes some people nervous.

February 17, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

They spent days agonizing over budgets, they baby-sat and wrote resumes, they networked to find jobs. They even did the laundry. Volunteers from two-dozen Anne Arundel County churches took on an extraordinary challenge: Using a family's yearlong welfare grant, they hoped to make them self-sufficient in six months.

Today, 2 1/2 years and 4,600 volunteer hours later, 22 of the 26 families they helped have left public assistance -- and Maryland is now part of a nascent social trend. Here, and across the country, government has begun to renegotiate the unspoken social contract with its citizens, asking society's other institutions to assume more responsibility for solving the problems of the poor.

As these new partnerships between government and religious groups emerge, the nation is redefining one of its founding principles -- the separation of church and state. This philosophical evolution has been sanctioned by a section of the federal welfare reform law called "charitable choice," which gives organizations the right to offer government-financed services in a religious setting.

"The idea of charitable choice," says Carl H. Esbeck, a Missouri law professor who helped draft the provision, "is built around the proposition that government should be neutral toward religion."

It also embraces the idea that spiritually rooted services are more effective than those coming from government, and that makes Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, very nervous.

"I happen to believe that spiritual life is very important," he says. "But historically and constitutionally, we don't support spiritual activities with tax dollars. We decided 200 years ago it's better for religious groups to operate by raising their own funds."

Traditionally, government has tended to discriminate against religious groups when it awards contracts for services such as day care or drug rehabilitation or counseling, says Esbeck.

While government has been wary about getting tangled up in the separation of church and state question, he says, religious groups have avoided such contracts because they fear excessive regulation.

But welfare reform, and the imperative to find imaginative solutions to an intractable problem, has led to a rapprochement.

"The new leading concept for social policy," says Stanley W. Carlson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice, a Christian-supported think tank, "is the idea that the institutions of civil society [including churches] need to be brought to the forefront in the fight against social distress and poverty."

The new partnerships have been treading carefully as they approach the church-state line. Anne Arundel County began working with churches with the understanding that there would be no proselytizing, though volunteers and welfare recipients often met together in the religious setting of a church hall. The county didn't pay churches, but it allowed them to use county money to help welfare recipients.

The county took advantage of the churches' spiritual mission and developed the kind of innovative program envisioned by charitable choice.

"Caring," says John Young, a volunteer at Asbury United Methodist Church in Arnold, explaining how his church was able to help a young woman and her two children leave welfare. "There's a lot of caring and support there. I don't know if social service agencies have the time for that."

'Labor-intensive' effort

Volunteers at St. Anne's Episcopal, the graceful church that gives Annapolis' Church Circle its name, discovered the same thing. "It's sort of labor-intensive," says Bob Hunt, a volunteer there.

After signing up for Anne Arundel County's Community Directed Assistance Program, St. Anne's began working with a 34-year-old woman with children ages 8 and 11.

The church was given the woman's welfare grant for an entire year, $4,200, with the goal of concentrating the money over six months in an all-out effort to make her self-sufficient.

"Our committee functioned as a network, as a sort of coach," says Hunt, a retired Navy captain. " 'That's not a good way to buy clothes,' we would say. 'Let's go to the hospital thrift shop.' A lot of that kind of stuff gets done, along with psychological support."

A year ago, the young woman and her children were in a shelter for the homeless. They had nothing. Church volunteers helped her find a subsidized apartment and make a budget and begin to pay off her bills. They drove her to job interviews. "We've done the laundry, too," says Hunt.

The new law, says Carlson-Thies, permits church participation without fear of legal problems, large or small. He recalls that the St. Vincent dePaul Society once sought a government contract and was told it could succeed only if it was willing to be known as Mr. Vincent dePaul.

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