Beyond Rhetoric, Action on Welfare Reform Comes Slow

AS REPUBLICANS and Democrats begin to organize themselves for the 105th Congress, Catholic organizations are setting priorities for the upcoming 1997-1998 legislative session. And concern about welfare reform tops the agenda.

The U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), is poised to call for changes to the welfare reform bill which President Clinton signed into law Aug. 22. Such action is expected when the conference's Domestic Social Development Committee meets in Washington in late January, 1997.

The welfare bill, formally titled the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, transferred much authority and funding for welfare programs to the states in the form of block grants. Federal legislation provides a basic framework for how those funds must be administered, but it leaves broad discretion to states and localities to design their own programs.

“The federal government used to provide funding for welfare programs and tell the states who they must serve,” said Patricia King, policy advisor to the Domestic and Social Welfare Committee of the USCC. “Now the federal government has reallocated the funding and has told the states who they are not allowed to serve.”

Three provisions worry Catholic officials in particular. The first is the treatment of legal immigrants, who are prohibited from receiving many welfare benefits under the terms of the bill. The second is the food stamp program. While food stamps were not included in the block grants and remain under federal control, increases in funding for the program have been reduced by approximately $27 billion in five years. Much of this reduction is expected to come at the expense of childless welfare recipients.

“The bill is especially tough on adults age 18 to 50 without dependent children,” said King. “In many cases, they can only receive welfare for three months if they do not find work, and that may not be enough for many people.” By law, states must inform recipients by Nov. 22 if they will face a loss of food stamp benefits. “These people are often the working poor, and food stamps can make the difference for them,” according to King.

On another level, the Church will be working to help welfare recipients find good-paying jobs. “The entire environment has changed with regard to welfare reform,” she said. “The focus clearly is on finding paying jobs for welfare recipients, and we want to help move people into jobs that have a future.”

To stimulate that process, the Church is in the preliminary stages of discussions with many of America's large labor unions. Church officials have been talking with representatives of the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions, including the Transit Workers Union and the Service Employees Union. “They seem to be interested in working with us,” said King.

The impact of the new welfare law will be felt across the country. While many states are currently utilizing federal waivers that allow them to use federal welfare money in new and innovative ways, all states will be forced by the law to design individual state- or locally-based programs.

The Church and other religious organizations will have a greater chance of participating in these new programs because of a little-noticed provision that permits states and local governments to contract for welfare services with nonprofit and religious organizations. The provision, sponsored by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), states that “religious organizations are eligible, on the same basis as any other private organization, as contractors to provide assistance or to accept certificates, vouchers, or other forms of disbursements under any program described” in the bill.

“This is a new day in welfare reform,” said Ashcroft in statement. “Now we have the chance to enlist the noble efforts of compassionate organizations—our churches, synagogues, and faith-based treatment centers—to help fight the war on poverty.”

“Basically, this language says that if a mayor of a city wants to contract with the Salvation Army to provide services to the poor, that mayor should be allowed to do it even though the Salvation Army is a religious organization,” said one congressional staffer who participated in crafting the bill.

“This provisions makes it a lot easier for states and cities to work with faith-based organizations,” said King. “Of course, many smaller religious organizations have never dealt with the government before, so we need to try to help them deal with the accountability requirements that will be placed upon them.” She mentioned day care and drug treatment as areas where Church-run programs could have a major impact.

Not everyone, however, believes that Congress should tackle welfare reform again this year. “It may be a little premature,” said Maureen Roselli, executive director of the Catholic Alliance, one of the few Catholic groups to support the welfare reform law. “We just passed a monumental reform, and we have no idea how it will play out in the public square. Let's give it some time to see what works and what does not work, and then fix what needs fixing. Let's not rush into anything without giving the law a chance to work.”

“There will certainly be some hearings this year on the implementation of the bill,” said Scott Brenner, a spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee. “I would expect that we will be working with the state welfare directors to see how the law is working locally. We have not drawn a line in the sand, and we realize that this will he an ongoing process. But I don't know that we will see substantive legislative action this year. It may take some time to see how the states are doing.”

One thing that will definitely change right away is the focus of Catholic organizations on the welfare issue. As welfare reform moves to the states and localities, less attention will he paid to Washington and more to state capitals and city halls around the country. “There could be a whole refinement of the way the Catholic community deals with public policy,” said King. “It is clear that much of this substantive action on welfare will no longer be in Washington, and we will need to be more active in the states and in the local communities.”

For example, King noted that state Catholic conferences will need to take a leadership role as governors and state legislators fashion new programs; and local dioceses will need to get more involved as the states in turn shift more welfare programs to counties and cities. The state Catholic conference directors will be meeting in Washington this month to discuss state welfare reform programs, among other issues.

“The individual dioceses and even individual parishioners will need to be much more involved,” said King. “The landscape has completely changed, and the Catholic community will need to change [its] approach. All of us will need to find new ways to reach out to help those in need.”

Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.