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Catholic Charities deals with 'welfare repeal'


The initial shock has worn off and a new determination seems to be setting in among Catholic Charities officials nationwide as they attempt to make the best out of bad -- and what many consider potentially catastrophic -- social policy one year after President Clinton signed legislation ending a half century of federal assistance to the country's poor.

The date the president signed the bill -- Aug. 22, 1996 -- stands out painfully in the memories of those who attended the annual Catholic Charities meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla., earlier this month. That was the day they and thousands of other social service providers and advocates were forced to admit defeat. Catholic Charities USA actively opposed the welfare legislation.

Yes, reform was needed in welfare assistance, Catholic Charities staff members will tell you. But what the nation got was not reform. In the words of Sister of Mercy Maureen Joyce, diocesan director of Catholic Charities in Albany, N.Y., it was simply "welfare repeal."

"That was the motive," she said. "That was the intent."

No one at the gathering believed for a minute that counties, working with private agencies will adequately provide needed services as the law envisions. That's what is frightening. The closer you get, the worse it looks. Prospects of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in dire poverty, perhaps with no shelter and minimal food, heating and medicine are real and haunting thoughts.

Much remains uncertain. States are to wean federal aid recipients off welfare rolls over the next 18 months to five years or face stiff penalties. The scope of the proposed change, meanwhile, continues to boggle the mind. No one claims to have a handle on exactly what the nation will go through in the years ahead.

Catholic Charities officials, still disappointed that Clinton signed the bill, talk about it as a "grand experiment," unprecedented in scope and spawned not by reason and intellectual persuasion but by pernicious myth and political ideology.

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities USA has learned many lessons in the past two years and is more coordinated and aggressive than ever before in lobbying local legislators to delay cutoff dates and rectify the worst of proposed and enacted legislation. Victories are being reported as some legislators step back from the brink.

Catholic Charities USA has made some modest changes to enable it to gather and disseminate information to dioceses more quickly: weekly "advofaxes," a new Web site and two full-time national staff members focusing on information and lobbying efforts.

Last year, Joyce says, the nation -- Catholics included -- swallowed the myth of the welfare cheat "and in the process stripped the poor of their dignity."

She and others continue to insist that the target of blame should be poverty, not the poor. She says most welfare recipients are elderly persons in nursing homes, and young children.

It is easy to sense bitterness just below the surface among those who watched as poor people were scapegoated.

These Catholic social advocates will say that as Christians they remain hopeful, though hardly optimistic.

Bitterness surfaces when they speak about Clinton, who has boasted that "welfare reform is working" as welfare rolls drop. Yes, drops are occurring, they say, and the new legislation has probably played a role. But the strongest economy in years has played a greater role.

More important, those who have come off social service rolls have been "the cream of the crop."

Ernie Giron, vice president and division director of Catholic Charities in Fort Collins, Colo., said he expects welfare reform to get good press in Colorado over the next 12 to 18 months as recipient numbers drop, perhaps by a third. That's when the easy cases will leave the rolls, including the educated and those temporarily out of work. Eventually, "we will get to the hard core -- those without job skills, job habits, those largely incapable of holding jobs, including the 50 percent without high school education or less."

Giron says the real problem will come when counties demand employment for people without skills and, in some cases, without hope of developing them. "We're waiting for the dike to break. It's like not knowing before you experience the devastation of a flood what it will be like. Only afterward will we face the enormity of the disaster."

Other service providers point to further complications: Little or no daycare for mothers working second and third shifts, inadequate transportation for the poor -- and always the threat of a recession. What happens, they ask, when the economy goes sour -- as one day it will -- and funding, already short and getting shorter, comes nowhere near meeting greater needs.

Finally, with millions entering the job market at minimum wage in the next several years, they say, expect increasingly depressed wages at the lower end of the income spectrum. For any hope of livable wages, the minimum wage will have to be raised dramatically. Politically, the odds are it is not going to happen, they say.

"The most immediate concern," said Patrick J. Johnson Jr., chair of the board of trustees of Catholic Charities USA, "is the inadequacy of job opportunities for the poor. The jobs they qualify for are most often part-time, contain no medical benefits and have no job path, no hope for decent wages or advancement."

Johnson spoke of the culture of hopelessness among the poor and a national myth of rugged individualism run amuck. "None of us have made it on our own. We Catholics need to bring to the cultural debate our religious sense of the common good, the notion that we act out of moral obligation and the need to sacrifice for a greater good. The most evident of those who cannot give back what they take are children. Can't we see it?"

So far, of course, many do not see it. The question in the minds of the many thousands who make up Catholic Charities, the largest private human services organization in the country, is, How dark will it have to get before people see the light?

Tom Fox is NCR's publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 1997