Welfare Reform and The Faithful: Compassionate Conservatism in Texas
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
Sounding as much like an itinerate preacher as presidential candidate, Texas Governor George W. Bush moves from town to town these days spreading the gospel about the power of religious faith to rejuvenate the downtrodden. He's not alone. Vice President Al Gore is singing the same hymn. Religion can be key to helping families escape poverty, both candidates say.
Both have endorsed channeling taxpayers' money to churches and other religious groups that help families on welfare. In Texas, Bush has begun to put his faith into action.
This is a church whose members step in where they see a need. During the week, the small building doubles as a pre-school. More than 30 children, ages two to six, play, nap and gather for Bible lessons in nearly every room, even among the pews.
Two years ago, First Missionary's pastor, the Rev. Charlie (C. M.) Singleton, added another mission. He organized a team of women to serve as mentors for single mothers who are facing the state-mandated jump from welfare to work.
Through their efforts, the believers of First Missionary are answering the call of their faith. These days, they also happen to be answering the call of their governor, George W. Bush.
Under a program called Charitable Choice, which he initiated in Texas in 1996 and is now promoting to a national audience in his presidential campaign, Bush, a Republican, is asking private, non-profit organizations, particularly churches, to double their efforts against poverty by reaching out to families on welfare.
"We found that government can spend money, but it can't put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives," Bush said in a speech unveiling "compassionate conservatism" in Indianapolis in July. "In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives."
Bush's Charitable Choice program takes its name from a little noticed provision of the 1996 federal welfare law, which says states may not discriminate against religious organizations in appropriating welfare funds.
Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, to take two examples, have long used taxpayer dollars to serve the poor, but aside from their names, it is often difficult to distinguish these organizations from their secular counterparts.
In the 1996 law, Congress freed up a large pool of federal money for private groups to provide social services and it invited more sectarian organizations to the table.
Churches cannot use the money to preach to women on welfare or to recruit new members; they must use it for welfare services. But, they do not have to remove religious icons or hire employees who do not belong to the church. They can also use their own money to support any religious activities they may want to offer within their government-funded programs.
If recipients don't like what they see and hear, the state must offer them an alternative.
At First Missionary, Pastor Singleton does not need to hear the governor's speeches. "Churches can have a bigger role," he said.
Singleton first talked to his congregation about the county-wide mentoring program, called Family Pathfinders, in 1997, just as the first Texas families lost their benefits under the state's new welfare rules. Two longtime church volunteers, Sarah Anderson and JoAnn Jordan, stepped forward immediately.
Today, Anderson, Jordan and four other women from First Missionary are working with two families on welfare. They will advise both for a year.
First Missionary is one of 17 churches in Tarrant County that now sponsors at least one volunteer team, usually made up of five or six people, to work closely with a single mother during her last months on welfare and her first months in a job. The mothers also volunteer for the program.
Modeled on similar projects in Michigan and Mississippi, Pathfinders was begun not by Bush, but by former Democratic comptroller of Texas, John Sharp. In Tarrant County, which includes the cities of Fort Worth and Arlington, the local arm of the state's Workforce Commission is using Family Pathfinders to advance the governor's Charitable Choice agenda. The county workforce board pays for a full-time staff member to recruit mentors and link them up with families.
First Missionary demonstrates that churches can and do marshal dedicated volunteers to help the less fortunate, as Bush says. And, unlike the state, they do insist on offering individual attention.
Between the two of them, Sarah Anderson and JoAnn Jordan have probably logged a lifetime of volunteer service. Jordan is a retired city clerk, but Anderson, 42, has two children at home and a full-time job as a Sheriff's Deputy. In addition to her work for their church, Anderson also volunteers for the Salvation Army and the Special Olympics.
"It is amazing how you can help people and be energized from that," she said.
Soon after they became Pathfinders, Anderson and Jordan began working with a single mother of six children who feared leaving home because of an outstanding arrest warrant. The two helped the mother resolve the warrant in a work release program. Jordan helped her find a federally subsidized apartment.
They figured it out as they went. "We really didn't know what to expect," Anderson said. "It was a surprise. It was overwhelming with surprises."
Pathfinder mentors find they have to learn to say 'no' to the very people they are trying to help. They have to scale walls of distrust and bridge broad cultural gaps.
"The first family didn't understand what we were about," Anderson said. "We had to encourage each other to keep from being discouraged. She thought we were going to take care of her."
Pathfinders is no easier on the mothers. Ruthie Garrison, who left welfare last year with the help of a Pathfinder team from the St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, feared prejudice from the people who signed on to help her.
"I felt uncomfortable. I was not too excited about the [first] meeting. I hate for someone to make me feel less than I am," she said. Garrison formed a strong bond with her mentors and they are still friends.
Tarrant County is the only Texas community that supports Pathfinders with state money, which is one reason the mentors say they can keep the program going. The program's director, Kate Hephner, spends almost all of her time recruiting church teams to advise the 18 families on her waiting list.
Of the other 75 Texas communities with Pathfinder teams, ten have full-time directors supported by the national program, Volunteers In Service To America - VISTA.
By all accounts, Fort Worth is at the forefront of Charitable Choice in Texas. In addition to Pathfinders, the local workforce board helps fund 14 other private, non-profit organizations that provide services to welfare families. Three -- including Pathfinders -- are affiliated with religious organizations.
But, even in Fort Worth, the county still runs the bulk of the welfare-to-work programs.
In Texas, as in most of the country, the government cannot yet look first to faith-based organizations to provide social services. While the vast majority of American churches do offer aid to the poor, they usually handle emergency needs. In Texas, many religious organizations, like First Missionary, also provide child care.
Even Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army have not traditionally offered what many single mothers in the new world of time-limited welfare need: the tools to get 'a job, a better job, a career' -- as the Texas Workforce Commission describes its goal.
Bush acknowledges that the government will have to help religious groups expand if Charitable Choice is going to work. "It is not enough to call for volunteerism. Without more support and resources - both private and public - we are asking [charities] to make bricks without straw," he said in Indianapolis.
At First Missionary, Singleton has already organized a separate non-profit that could serve as a home for additional social services. He is considering applying for a government grant this year to start an adult literacy program. But, First Missionary does not now receive any public money. The pre-school runs on private donations and weekly fees.