Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Ending Poverty As We Know It

James Skillen


July 22, 1996

Our national welfare system is on the verge of a complete overhaul. Maybe. Republicans in Congress have decided it's better for their electoral cause, if not for Bob Dole's, to send President Clinton a welfare bill he might actually sign, so they'll put on his desk this week a bill without the Medicaid provisions he promised to veto. Clinton, in turn, after passing up other chances, apparently has decided the time to act has come and that the Republican blueprint has been changed enough to be palatable. So the signals are green for national welfare reform—although positive signs didn't prevent derailment of the welfare reform train in the past.

Reformers intend to implement three key principles as they streamline or eliminate multiple programs and thousands of regulations. If they succeed, they will overturn a six-decade-old strategy for dealing with social distress that is now widely acknowledged to be insufficient and sometimes even counterproductive. Whether ending welfare as we know it will help end poverty as we know it is the big issue at stake in the experiment we are about to launch.

First, the entitlement to welfare will be replaced by conditional assistance so that government help will encourage good choices rather than undergird negative ones. Yet rules that are too tough for families deeply mired in poverty—the five year limit on benefits or moving half of recipients into work by 2002—may necessitate so many exceptions as to gut the principle.

Second, the authority to design welfare programs will devolve from the federal government to the states. The idea is that states are closer to the problems and can deal with them more flexibly. But state bureaucrats can be as rigid as the feds, and a state's inner cities are less like its rural areas than like the next state's urban centers. And shouldn't Americans share a common standard of duties as well as rights?

The most promising principle is the third one: welfare authorities will cooperate with community and religious groups serving the needy. This is the "charitable choice" idea already promoted by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) in the last welfare bill Congress sent to the president States will be encouraged to turn to nonprofit organizations, including religious charities, for the social services they want to fund. They will be required to honor the religious character of churches and social ministries that choose to team-up with the welfare system.

Christian and other faith-based social ministries are the new force that distressed families and communities need, and government should uphold them and turn to them in its antipoverty strategy. All levels of government already contract extensively with religious organizations, but often lean on them to downplay or eliminate their religious character. Charitable Choice will put strong and explicit protective language into the law. Sadly, strict separationists and squeamish Republicans have weakened the concept by letting stand the rule in some states that no public funds may go to any "sectarian" organization.

Charitable Choice will be just words until a new relationship between government and the religious social sector is actually forged. For the new principle to be fruitful, the Christian community will have to do two things. We must go beyond general sentiments about turning welfare over to the churches, and become involved in the details of state and local policy making. And we will have to manifest a readiness to love our needy neighbors in a way that goes far beyond current practices. Unless the new words of the welfare law are matched by new deeds by citizens and charitable organizations, there'll be no end to poverty as we know it.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”