For churches, an active, not a verbal, role for justice

April 09, 1997|By Benjamin G. Davis

FREDERICK -- The article, ''Welfare Reform: the return of indentured servitude'' (Opinion Commentary, March 28), was perhaps well-intentioned. Douglas Miles and his co-authors are correct about one thing: The poor may become the losers in the debate over welfare reform. Unfortunately, the divisive language could undermine efforts to reform a welfare system that many feel is out of control, placing the poor in gravest jeopardy.

In the first place, ''indentured servitude,'' implying that welfare reform is moving us back to slavery, is plain erroneous. Indentured servitude was not slavery but a chosen, if often grim, condition in which an individual would undertake to work for another for a fixed period of time in exchange for something else, generally passage to the New World. Historians estimate that three-quarters of the English migrants to our region came as indentured servants. But indentured servitude, like slavery, is now prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment.

A program that expects people to work for their income can hardly be called slavery. Some claim that forcing people to pay taxes to support those who do not work is itself a from of slavery -- though most Americans are quite willing to do this for those in need.

My greater concern has to do with the article's appeal to churches not to cooperate with welfare-reform programs. This approach leads to a politics of confrontation. I hope, rather, that welfare reform will give the religious community the incentive it needs to resume an active rather than verbal role for justice.

In the Christian faith, care for the poor is not an option but a mandate. The early church established the diaconate precisely to care for those who could not care for themselves, and throughout the ages, churches have established hospitals, schools and relief programs for those in need.

Christianity is not alone in its call to justice. The Hebrew prophets led the way. The Five Precepts of Buddhism require a denial of self. And Zakta, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, demands that the faithful give alms.

In the main the religious community has all but abdicated our responsibility to care for the poor. We rely on government to act for us. Now that the call has come for the church to rejoin the fight, too many want it to remain on the sideline while pressing government to act. That government must be involved goes without saying, but the primary responsibility must rest first with the individual, then with the religious community, and finally with the government.

The new welfare-reform program provides three ways for third-party groups such as churches, temples and synagogues to be active in helping those in need. The first involves children.

One concern that led to reform was by promising increased benefits as children were born to welfare recipients, the program offered an incentive to women to bear babies. Working people, generally, do not earn salaries based on their family size. Under the new system, children born 10 months or more after a woman begins to receive cash assistance do not raise the mother's grant.

These families have great needs, however, and there is no desire to punish a child for being born. Therefore, a third party such as a church group can receive a monthly grant on behalf of the child to be spent specifically for the child's benefit.

A second fault of the old system was inflexibility. Some families or individuals need very little -- perhaps some training or health need -- to help them move from welfare toward employment. The new welfare law provides for community-directed assistance in which a third party can receive the funds that would have been spent on welfare for the family and spend them to remove the impediment that stood in the way of self-sufficiency. The client loses cash assistance but gains something more valuable -- a job.

A third way for the religious community to become involved is through transitional assistance. The new welfare law requires that all who are able must work, but what about one who refuses to work or to participate in job-seeking activities? The complete family grant will be terminated. The client must be warned and counseled repeatedly. To prevent family calamity, a third party can receive the grant to spend on behalf of the client. If after three months of additional assistance the client still refuses even to look for a job, all help is terminated -- until the client begins to make an effort.

In these ways the religious community can become involved in a needy family's life and help it on the path to self-sufficiency. Rather than polemicize we must cooperate in ministering to those in need. While we are doing this, we can work to change portions of the welfare law that trouble us. Only in this manner will the poor truly be helped.

Benjamin G. Davis is executive director of the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs, which operates seven food banks, a homeless shelter and energy, pharmacy and housing-assistance programs.

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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