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Welfare Policy Should Help, Not Hinder
New Workers, Faith Bodies Say

March 15, 2002, WASHINGTON, D.C. - One hundred church people from 26 states spent March 13-15 in the nation’s capital to press for changes in welfare policy to help ensure that everyone who can work moves successfully from welfare to work.

Conference participants affirmed the "benefit to the entire community of helping people move from welfare to work when possible and appropriate." But they expressed concern that inadequate support is leaving new workers poorer than when they were receiving public assistance.

Delegation Meets with Schumer StafferTheir meeting, under the auspices of the National Council of Churches (NCC), was a mix of Bible study, policy analysis, strategy development and appointments with members of Congress (pictured: New Yorkers meet with Christine Parker, center, of Senator Charles Schumer's staff) to share their concerns as 1996 welfare "reforms" come up for review and reauthorization.

"We as the faith community have something special to say," asserted Kay Bengston of the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, Washington, D.C., a conference speaker. "While statistics are important, we can approach the issues from values and not just statistics.

"When you talk with your members of Congress," she said, "don’t be afraid to tell them you are here because of your faith, and that faith causes you to care about poor people."

Under 1996 welfare "reforms," many have lost supportive services that are essential to maintaining their households, agreed conference participants - who included faith-based social service providers, public policy advocates, denominational staff with domestic poverty portfolios and representatives of state and local ecumenical agencies and community ministries. Several current and former recipients of public assistance also brought their personal testimonies.

Many new workers have jobs that do not provide a family-sustaining wage and/or health insurance, but have lost cash, housing, child care, food assistance or other benefits that sustained them while on welfare. Access to drug, alcohol, mental health and domestic violence services; education and training for employment; help with job placement and retention, and transportation can make or break a new worker’s success, conferees noted.

Now the 1996 welfare policy - the official name is "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)" - is up for review and reauthorization, providing an opportunity to ensure that no new worker receives less in combined income and benefits as a result of working than they received while they were on welfare, conference participants affirmed.

Released during the conference was a "Call to Poverty Reduction in the Context of Reauthorization of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families," endorsed by 25 Christian, Jewish and other organizations and asserting that the call to end poverty is "central to our religious traditions, sacred texts and teachings."

The "call" urges Congress to "provide more funds for TANF to ensure its ability to act as both a work support program and a safety net for those for whom work is not an option" and offers 10 principles for strengthening U.S. welfare policy, including providing training and education necessary for unskilled workers to get and hold jobs.

TANF Conferees in Bible StudyPolicy should help, not hinder people’s efforts to better themselves, conference participants agreed. For example, participation in post-secondary education should count as work, they said.

The interfaith "Call to Poverty Reduction" and the NCC General Assembly’s November 2001 "Resolution on the Reauthorization of TANF and Related Programs" articulate the need for more case-by-case flexibility in application of welfare policy. They recommend that the current system of time limits on participation in TANF (two years’ running, with a five-year lifetime limit) be replaced by a more flexible approach in which there is an individualized plan for each participant.

The Rev. Dr. Peter W. Peters, of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Fairport, N.Y., told the story of a 42-year-old woman with an 11-year-old son in his area. She has been receiving public assistance for four years. She is two months away from earning an associate’s degree in food administration, which will boost her earning power from her current $5.25 an hour to $8 to $10 an hour.

"This woman is almost ready to be self-sufficient," Dr. Peters said. "But the Department of Social Services has notified her that unless she quits school and gets a 40-hour-a-week job, she will lose her assistance." She’s appealing the department’s edict, he said, "but she shouldn’t be put up against a wall like that."

Ruth P. Rideout of Faith Matters in Greensboro, N.C., a United Methodist, told of a 30-year-old client who is piecing her life together with Medicaid, Food Stamps and a 15- to 19-hour a week job in a fast food restaurant. Her "Section 8" subsidized housing voucher covers just over half of her rent, and her earnings are inadequate to cover the balance, Rideout said. "She has a voucher for a six-month certified nursing course, and we are trying to get her a break on housing for six months so she can take the course and get a better paying job."

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Addresses TANF ConfereesThe conference participants heard from U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) (right) and staff about efforts to strengthen anti-poverty work through legislative advocacy, and were introduced to ecumenical curricula ("Hunger No More" and "Micah 6") useful in undergirding churches’ social justice and advocacy ministries.

The conference was part of the National Council of Churches’ 10-year mobilization against poverty. Particular emphasis this month embraces this conference and a special "March: On Poverty 2002" section of the NCC’s Web site.  The NCC Web site also includes Resources on the Reauthorization of TANF and Related Programs.

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