e-mail us


As new cutbacks hit poor, church and state debate where the buck will stop

NCR Staff

If there's not a war against the poor, there's certainly a drastic increase in attacks the poor are facing from one quarter or another, according to reports from three sources dealing with child poverty, homelessness and church social concerns programs.

First, the nation's youngest poor children are increasing -- in 20 years the figure has almost doubled, from 3.5 million to 6.1 million, the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University's School of Public Health reported Dec. 11. According to the report, currently 25 percent of all American children live in families with incomes below the poverty line.

The same day the Columbia University statistics were made public, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported that U.S. cities are increasingly criminalizing homelessness, with 38 percent of cities engaged in crackdowns; 54 percent had recent "police sweeps" of the homeless, and 77 percent of surveyed cities have ordinances to restrict begging (see sidebar). Meanwhile, in Maryland, in an omen of the problems to be faced when state governments begin to respond to federal welfare cutbacks, the organizations of mainline and inner-city churches are objecting to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's attempt to place churches on the frontline of dealing with poverty problems previously handled by the state.

"We're willing to help within our resources," said Kevin Appleby, associate social concerns director at the Maryland State Catholic Conference. "We don't want families to be harmed but we object to the fact that the government is passing the buck."

In Maryland as in other states across the nation, legislatures and governors are now faced with the consequences of the welfare reforms signed into law in August by President Clinton.

Under Maryland's Welfare Innovation Act of 1996, basically that state's welfare plan, the state will "fully sanction" -- remove from welfare rolls -- families that don't comply with the work requirement.

They won't lose food stamps or medical coverage but they will lose their entire cash grant. Fully sanctioned, they'll be provided with only transitional assistance, which the legislation says has to be paid to a nonprofit organization. Glendening wants churches to be the nonprofit organizations to receive the funds.

The bill states that the nonprofit organizations receiving the money will provide services to the family -- housing, counseling and the like -- to get them back on track. The Central Maryland Ecumenical Leadership Group, meeting with the governor Dec. 10, resisted that approach. The group includes the mainline churches, peace churches and the Jewish community.

"We opposed the underlying policy that brought about these compromises," said Appleby, "and now the state is trying to get churches to carry the ball -- and a lot of these families are your toughest cases with multiple problems."

Glendening rejected as unworkable the churches' suggestion that the state abandon its welfare-to-work program.

Said Appleby of the Catholic Conference, "We're already strapped and we want the really hard cases referred to family services or drug counseling and for the state to work with them."

On Dec. 13, Glendening was meeting with the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, predominantly the black churches in the state's cities, a group that argues that the welfare legislation is punitive.

"Obviously," Appleby told NCR, "our mission is to help the poor, and we want to make welfare reform work. But under Maryland proposals the state is asking churches to go above and beyond current mission to replace government in its role as chief caretaker of the poor. We look at government as the safety net with churches meeting the needs of people who fall through the gaps, and we've been doing that well for decades. Now, in the view of many, the government is expecting churches to be the safety net."

Meanwhile, the National Center for Children in Poverty states that its 20 year review (see charts) showing one in four young children already living in poverty or extreme poverty "provides facts that can replace partisan rhetoric and contradict many of the stereotypes that have confused the welfare reform debate."

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 1996/January 3, 1997