NCCCUSA Kicks Off Long-Term Welfare Reform Strategy

1998 NCC News Archives

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NCC Kicks Off Long-Term Welfare Reform Strategy
Multidisciplinary Group Stresses Need to End Poverty

October 9, 1998, NEW YORK -- As politicians across the country boast about declining welfare rolls, a diverse group including church leaders and communicators, policy analysts and community organizers has kicked off a strategy leading up to the 2002 welfare legislation reauthorization that stresses the need to end poverty.

"Shaping the Values that Shape Us," a mid-September consultation called by the National Council of Churches (NCC), included 100 participants who evaluated current welfare reform legislation and its impact on communities. The group then strategized about the church’s role in advocating for more just and compassionate welfare policies.

Following the conference, the NCC’s Economic Justice and Domestic Hunger Program Ministry delineated a four-part strategy for its anti-poverty, welfare legislation effort which includes a think tank, legislative strategies, church educational strategies and long-term mobilization. "These strategies are aimed at helping people in our churches get a deeper, more accurate picture of social welfare policy issues and empowering people to participate in the political process around these issues," reported the Rev. Charles Rawlings, Director of Urban Initiatives for the NCC.

The group also identified seven goals for the 2002 legislation, including availability of work for everyone, investment in education and training programs, de-linking nutrition from welfare and addressing the crisis of care-giving.

"We realized that we needed to come together now to start the process so we will be ready when the issue is on top of the national agenda again in 2002," said the Rev. Janet Parker, one of the organizers of the welfare consultation, jointly sponsored by the NCC’s National Ministries Unit and Communication Commission. "In the meantime, we will work on what we can do on the state and other levels."

Welfare Issues Linked to Economic Inequalities

The consultation emphasized the need to see social welfare policy issues as systemic economic problems rather than as individual moral questions. "There was a strong sense that congressional leaders who passed the 1996 act believed they were curing moral deficiencies, using tough love to discipline people to work," said Mr. Rawlings. "But the presenters revealed that people lacked income because they lacked access to good jobs. The average wage reported for people recently off welfare was $7-$8 an hour with no benefits."

The speakers, who ranged from policy analysts and academics to church activists and church communicators, provided analysis that underscored the ever widening economic gap between the top 10 percent and the rest of the population. These inequalities were illustrated by Steve Wilson of United for a Fair Economy, who mobilized conference participants to show, in concrete, visual ways, the growing gaps in private wealth and purchasing power.

"When we look at the workforce as a whole we find that most people are dealing with increasing economic vulnerability," said Mary Hobgood, Professor at the College of the Holy Cross. "Over a quarter of U.S. workers today hold jobs that don’t pay them enough to live above the poverty level. Currently, at least 18 million people in the United States, half of whom are white, are forced to subsist on the underground economy, on crime, or on rapidly eroding state welfare programs."

Presentations also revealed the dissonance between deeply held American values of equal opportunity and fairness and punitive policies and programs enacted in recent years. Michael Delli Carpini of Barnard College described primary and secondary values of the majority in the United States, who agree with the two-year limit on welfare but also agree that it is hard to find jobs. "There is enormous conflict and contradiction (in these values)," Mr. Carpini explained.

Speakers stressed the important role of the media as the agenda-setter and image-maker. LynNell Hancock from the Columbia School of Journalism, who has analyzed the media coverage of this issue carefully, reported that in the August 1, 1996, coverage of welfare legislation she found what she calls "media’s allergy to poverty." For example, although 25 major newspapers had lead and sidebar stories about the legislation on that day, "there were only two quotes from welfare recipients." Stereotypical images of the "welfare queen" were used in the stories as were simplistic slogans, she said.

Many participants pointed to the media images and representations that shape the debate and showed how black and Latino populations bear the impact of welfare legislation disproportionately. "A recent New York Times article on the drop in the nation’s welfare rolls shows that African Americans and Hispanics across the country are being left behind in the move from welfare to work," said David Jones, President of the Community Service Society of New York. "In New York City, 57 percent of whites have left the welfare rolls since March 1995, but only 30 percent of African Americans and a mere 7 percent of Hispanics. There was a time when welfare was stereotyped as a handout for urban minorities. Now it is actually in danger of becoming so."

Denominational communicators expressed the formidable challenges faced by the faith community in lobbying on this issue. "Religious and moral arguments will probably not change the dominant values," said Hans Holznagel, Minister for Mission Education and Public Relations for the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries. "We are up against funding, unanimity, one political party and part of another."

"We need a strategy of newsroom advocacy," said the Rev. Arthur Cribbs Jr., Executive Director for the United Church of Christ Office of Communication. "We need to lobby on the inside."


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