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Faith-Based Service Providers, Advocates Discuss Strengths/Weaknesses as Reauthorization Nears

Full Text of the NCC's Welfare Reform Survey

February 15, 2001, CHEVY CHASE, Md. – More Americans are working as a result of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, but many of them are poorer than before, according to faith-based social service providers and advocates polled by the National Council of Churches.

These providers report that they are seeing more and more hungry people, according to the survey, released today. Overwhelmingly, the 150 respondents said, working families are the fastest growing category of people in need, and more and more of them are coming to faith-based organizations and other not-for-profits seeking food and help with rent, mortgage and utility payments, child care and job training and placement.

"Florida voters may have left a lot of dimpled chads, leaving ballot counters puzzled at their intent, but survey respondents were clearly outraged at the increase in numbers of working poor," said Mary Cooper of the NCC’s Washington Office, who tallied the results.

"They jabbed at the survey form and put multiple checkmarks as they described working people struggling to stay housed but unable to pay their utilities and turning to the church for help. This winter it’s going to be terrible for people trying to pay for heat."

"Just getting a job is not sufficient to get out of poverty," Ms. Cooper said. "We have to help policy makers understand that."

The NCC canvassed social service providers and advocates from its 36 mainline Protestant and Orthodox member denominations and from state and local ecumenical and interfaith programs. Responses came from 34 states; most respondents were from community ministries and local religious groups that provide social services.

Survey results were released during a related, NCC-sponsored consultation being held here Feb. 14-16 and drawing more than 120 participants from congregations, local, state and national ecumenical and interfaith organizations and grassroots organizations in 29 states and the District of Columbia..

They will recommend a "platform" for the advocacy work of the National Council of Churches, its member denominations and their 50 million adherents, in collaboration with state and local religious and secular partners, as three welfare reform-related programs come up for reauthorization in 2002: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Food Stamp Program and the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

The NCC opposed enactment of TANF at the beginning, but "now it’s the only welfare program we have," Ms. Cooper said. "So we have to deal with it realistically. We have to be in favor of reauthorization, acknowledge what’s working and speak up about what needs to be changed."

The survey and consultation – made possible by funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- are pieces of the NCC’s broader, 10-year "Poverty Mobilization," launched in November 2000 and exploring initiatives in such areas as health care, children, environment, education and housing, all with the aim of identifying achievable goals for combating poverty in the United States.

What’s working under the 1996 welfare reform, Ms. Cooper reported, "came down to what helps people get jobs, earn a decent wage and have a decent life. What’s bad is what makes people worse off by going to work than they were on welfare."

Under the 1996 legislation, people leaving welfare often are forced to take any job that is available without regard to their family needs, the survey confirmed. "Jobs people take when they lack education and training often don’t pay enough to support a family," respondents said, "and in many states they lose Medicaid, Food Stamps, child care and housing subsidies when they get a job, or the value is sharply reduced. The result is they are poorer working than they were when they were on welfare."

"There was wide diversity among respondents as to whether welfare reform is working or not, but no question at all that need is much increased," Ms. Cooper said. "Respondents were nearly unanimous that the time limits for getting off welfare are too short and the sanctions too harsh – for example, where a whole family loses benefits because a parent fails to comply."

Welfare reform has worked best, the survey found, where states provide significant literacy and job training and continue supportive services such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, subsidies for housing and child care and transportation for working persons and those leaving welfare.

"People leaving welfare need supportive experiences to be phased out very carefully and gradually so they are better off at the end of it," Ms. Cooper said.

Survey respondents agreed that many states have unrealistic expectations of people’s ability to work. "Many of those who are still on TANF need substantial education, training and medical care in order to be employable, and it may well take more than two years for them to reach this goal," respondents said. "They said people in need (whether or not they have children) should be eligible for help as long as it is needed, as long as they are making an effort to comply. And some people will never be employable."

The survey found a lot of states aren’t giving people the Food Stamps and Medicaid to which they are entitled, even after they go to work.

As people are being pushed off welfare, the survey noted, their care is being shifted away from government agencies to the non-profit sector, which has a limited capacity to meet the need. "Faith-based organizations are being called to take on more than they are able to offer," Ms. Cooper observed. "Churches offer food, clothing and counseling, but few have the capacity to help with rent, mortgage and utilities payments, transportation and job training."


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