Cover Story

Fighting poverty in Jesus' name...and with taxpayer funds?

On the second anniversary of federal welfare reform, many say that the most effective poverty-fighting organizations are faith-based. Some in Washington actually want to help, but critics worry that the help comes with unacceptable strings attached.

Issue: "Beyond bread and circuses," Aug. 15, 1998

When Don Taylor strides into a room, there's no mistaking his military background. If the close-cropped hair and review-stand posture aren't enough to show that he's a retired U.S. Army colonel, then the West Point ring on his right hand closes the case. He's an odd pick to head Mississippi's Department of Human Services-and his three-year tenure in the position, at the appointment of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, has been nothing if not controversial. Controversy doesn't bother him, he says. He's mission-oriented, and the mission is to improve lives. On this hot summer afternoon, he pulls two pastors into his office with a handshake. "Brother Stan, Brother Ron, good to see you." He beams at Ron Moore and Stan Wachtstetter, who run the state's groundbreaking Faith and Families program. They're something of a secret weapon. Despite cries at the outset from the ACLU and advocacy groups, for two years Mr. Taylor has deployed the program to pair welfare recipients with church congregations. The program has continued to build, to the point where now 850 churches in the state are mentoring more than a thousand "clients"-current or former welfare recipients. "I'm a pragmatist," says Mr. Taylor. "I go with what works. And I know that faith works where nothing else will. The government can't dry every tear, can't sweep every sidewalk, can't hire every worker. And it can't solve any problem as long as it keeps confusing material poverty with behavioral poverty." And that's why Faith and Families, even when it was still a vague proposal advocated by Gov. Fordice in 1994, appealed to him. Faith and Families is essentially a wise military move: Instead of having one social worker attempting to keep up with 300 clients, one client now has a congregation of usually 200 or more caring people backing him or her up. "Here's what that looks like," explains Mr. Moore, the black pastor of the Stronger Hope Baptist Church in Jackson. "The Van Winkle Baptist Church, a white, conservative church, enrolled and we paired them with a young, black single mother. They took a look at her needs. To get a job, she needed transportation. No problem-one of the deacons said, 'I got an old car.' She needed child care. No problem-the church had a child-care center. If the car breaks down, she's not left on foot and out of work again-there's always gonna be a mechanic in a church." And the real difference, he says in a quick, cadenced voice, is that it's not an impersonal bureaucracy-the woman is "being cared for by her church family. They're in the trench with her." Mr. Taylor smiles-"I read all the [social service] materials, I go to the conferences. They're full of smarmy acronyms. But at the bottom line, I know this is why we're way ahead in moving people off the rolls." His smile broadens when he's asked about his authority to blend the sacred and the secular in such a way. "By the time Charitable Choice came along, we were already doing this," he says. "I've always worked on the assumption it's easier to get forgiveness than permission. That's why we're so far out ahead." The "Charitable Choice" he's talking about is Sen. John Ashcroft's plan for helping the rest of the country catch up with Mississippi in moving families off the welfare rolls. Two years ago, as part of the landmark welfare-reform package signed into law by President Clinton on Aug. 22, 1996, a provision inserted by the Missouri Republican made it inviting for more churches and other faith-based organizations to receive government funds for their physical and spiritual anti-poverty work. Mr. Ashcroft knew churches and other ministries could offer help that state agencies could not provide on their own-both in terms of quantity and quality. But he also understood that as long as cumbersome regulations came attached to government money, most religious organizations would shy away from helping to shoulder the welfare burden. As he put it during the debate, a pastor "shouldn't have to climb up on the steeple and remove the cross," in order to help the needy. To prevent that, the Charitable Choice law included guarantees designed to protect the religious identity and mission of welfare providers, even when they accepted state funds to carry on their work. Among those guarantees:

  • Charities cannot be forced to remove religious symbols, icons, or sacred art from the walls.
  • Charities are exempted from nondiscrimination laws in their hiring. Thus, a church-run job-training facility may hire only Christians to teach its classes.
  • Charities may retain control of their internal governance. The state may not require, for instance, that a charity's board of directors reflect the "cultural diversity" of the local community.

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