Who will help the poor if not churches?

March 02, 1997|By Sara Engram

TURNING AROUND government policy on welfare is a lot like changing the course of an ocean liner. It's slow work, and it commands close attention from any craft nearby.

As the federal government moves away from the welfare role it has played for more than half a century, other institutions that have traditionally dealt with the poor are sometimes rocking in the waves.

In Maryland, churches are being asked to play a bigger and more official role -- and some of them aren't happy about it. That's hardly surprising, since they weren't given much say in the matter when the legislature decided last year to allow churches to administer state aid on behalf of families being sanctioned for running afoul of welfare rules -- in other words, taking responsibility for the toughest welfare cases.

Even so, why are churches and church-run charities grumbling about being asked to play a role in welfare reform? After all, the Judeo-Christian tradition places great emphasis on caring for the poor.

The answer is as varied as the country's rich religious heritage.

For many religious groups, the biblical command to help the poor goes beyond providing food, clothing and shelter. Their duty also includes working to eliminate the causes of poverty, such as social or legal injustice. These groups tend to be critical of welfare reform insofar as it allows government to cut back on its role in providing resources for the poor.

Other religious groups, especially conservative Christians, are simply distrustful of government. They see traditional welfare payments as a means of supporting and even encouraging destructive behavior, such as out-of-wedlock childbearing.

While these groups may be eager to provide services to the poor, they also want to offer that help in the context of their religious mission and message.

Enter government, with the bright idea that churches can do a better job of helping welfare recipients than can the state, and that some changes in the law will allow them to do that, while remaining true to their religious mission.

"Charitable choice"

It's common sense that the personal concern religious groups can offer in addition to money or food or clothing can make a huge difference in a poor family's chances for becoming self-sufficient. But ''charitable choice,'' the federal welfare law's provision allowing religious organizations the right to offer government-financed aid in a religious setting, is a bold challenge to traditional interpretations of the separation of church and state.

The concept raises other concerns as well. Do religious organizations have the administrative infrastructure to play this role? Can they operate on a large-enough scale? On that score, there was skepticism aplenty at a recent meeting of representatives from Towson-area churches. After all, churches are volunteer organizations, dependent on the schedules and pocketbooks of members with many other obligations.

What are the legal and administrative ramifications if they accept responsibility for ensuring that a welfare family receives its monthly allotment from the state? What will the congregation do when the state's payments run out and the family is still not self-sufficient?

These questions trouble pastors who already face huge demands on their time and worry each year about making the budget. Legislators shouldn't make light of those concerns -- or of the issues surrounding church-state separation.

If the government wants the churches to help with welfare reform, is it fair to ask them to do so without couching that help in a religious context? But will the courts uphold any challenges from people who don't want to receive government assistance wrapped in a religious message?

Certainly, the state cannot expect religious groups to give up their voice on public-policy concerns in return for agreeing to administer government funds for the poor. Could anyone seriously expect the Roman Catholic church to refrain from trying to influence abortion laws? And do we really want to ignore what religious groups and their leaders have to say about physician-assisted suicide?

But public officials who want churches to play a bigger role in welfare reform are making an important point. If the country is to break the cycle that has mired many families in generations of dependency, it will take more than a government check.

It will also take the kind of compassion and concern that religious groups are eminently qualified to provide, person to person, sinner to sinner, soul to soul.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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