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

Lamps Without Light

James Skillen


April 29, 1996

Like many states, Maryland isn't waiting for Congress and the president to get on the same page before designing its own top-to-bottom welfare reform. Maryland's legislature has overwhelmingly adopted a welfare bill that requires recipients to go to work and that converts welfare into services to help families gain independence. It's the same two-part strategy adopted by reform leaders like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Surprisingly, the plan chosen by Maryland's solidly Democratic legislature also features an integral role for non-profit groups, including religious organizations.

If the governor signs as expected and the feds say OK, welfare in Maryland will become a way for families to escape from poverty by becoming connected to the working world. Poor families can tap emergency help to avoid welfare entirely. Families needing more must promise to start work or to prepare for a job, cooperate to secure child support, and agree to tap family and community resources. Government will offer employment services and child-care benefits. Cash assistance will be the last resort.

And to help the poor more effectively, government in Maryland is reaching out to religious and secular institutions. If a family doesn't uphold its side of the welfare agreement, its cash benefits will be paid to a nonprofit organization that will provide intensive services to help the family get off welfare. The state also wants non-governmental institutions to help design innova-tive programs like case management by nonprofit groups or residential welfare that includes child care, job help, and intensive mentoring. The new law says it right out: religious organizations can participate in this new welfare effort "on the same basis as any other non-governmental entity."

Here's a praiseworthy makeover of welfare in Maryland. But the churches aren't seizing the opportunity. In the Senate hearings, the lobbyist for the Presbyterian church (PCUSA) imagined a deadly threat to the safety net and warned of increased crime, drug abuse, and homelessness. The Maryland Catholic Conference condemned possible benefit cuts and the lack of guaranteed "living-wage jobs." No church welcomed the government's invitation to expand their social outreach in cooperation with public programs. Don't turn to us for anything new, exclaimed the Maryland Inter-faith Legislative Committee—it's your job to take care of "the general welfare of the community." Presbyterian churches already help the needy, said their lobbyist; they cannot be "a substitute for our government-administered, tax-supported welfare to families." The Catholic Church simply ignored the invitation, and evangelical churches didn't show up even to testify.

Of course, the Christian community should not leap merely because the government asks it to. The new law waves a red flag when it admits turning to churches and charities in order to "leverage" reduced welfare funds. Although it invites religious organizations to participate, the law offers little protection against secularizing regulations and court decisions—a grave omission. Instead, it hammers against "sectarian religious instruction," as if a religious approach is toxic rather than a positive reason to get churches involved. Moreover, churches are not mere social service agencies, no matter what some welfare reformers imagine.

Still, loving our neighbors is a key responsibility of the body of Christ and it is one we have too often tried to fulfill by handing it off to others. Maryland's law needs improvement, but it goes far toward the needed new cooperative model for helping the poor. Christians should push for revisions instead of turning their backs on this call to renewed service. If we don't get busy we'll be just like those foolish virgins in the Gospel account who discovered when the bridegroom arrived that their lamps were empty and could shed no light.

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

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
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.”