Church Eyes Welfare Funds 'Devolution' with Concern

WASHINGTON—While Congress reforms a host of federal programs, many experts predict that a number of programs previously funded and administered by the federal government will soon become the province of state and local governments. The process, dubbed “devolution,” could have a major impact on state Catholic conferences and individual dioceses around the nation, as the focus of activity on many issues shifts from Capitol Hill to state capitals and county courthouses.

Welfare is the most visible example of this trend, and one that worries Catholic groups in particular. In August, Congress passed—and President Clinton signed—a historic welfare bill that shifts funding and responsibility for many anti-poverty and social welfare programs to the states. Funding for various welfare programs (with the notable exception of food stamps) will be pooled and sent to the states in huge annual bloc grants. Washington's goal is clear: Welfare recipients should move off the roles and into paying jobs. States that succeed in placing welfare recipients in jobs will receive bonus payments from Washington. The federal government will set certain basic parameters for the administration of welfare to work programs (setting time limits and certain eligibility requirements, for example), but governors and state legislators will retain a great deal of discretion to design welfare plans for their states.

Devolution may not stop there. It is thought that some programs that will be bloc granted to the states, like job training, might also be sent by the state to counties and cities to administer locally.

This means a greater role for Catholic groups at the state and local level. At least initially, much of the focus will be on the state Catholic conferences. The federal welfare reform legislation reduced the rate of increase in welfare spending by more than $50 billion over five years, and it limits the total time individuals and families can receive assistance. These reductions come at a time when many states have already reduced their state welfare payments (typically called “general assistance”) to poor families. This has some state conference directors worried over the impact of the federal law.

The bill's “impact on the poor is horrific,” said Jane Chiles, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. Added Doug Delaney, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois: “We feel that people would already have taken jobs if they were there. The problem is the jobs are not there now.”

As they grapple with these changes, state Catholic conferences will need to be vigilant. With the welfare issue, for example, states will have to decide in the coming months how the large bloc grants will be distributed. There is little federal guidance in this regard, so Catholic conferences will be out front working with governors, legislators, and key staffers to be certain that welfare monies are distributed in the fairest way possible.

“We are waiting to see how the bloc grants will be administered,” said Carolyn Perpetua, communications director of the Catholic Conference of Pennsylvania. “So much of the discretion is left up to the state that we need to be sure that funds are divided up equitably. We will make sure that faith-based groups have a say in how these funds are allocated.”

“We are encouraging our dioceses and parishes to work with their local legislators, because they are the ones who will be deciding these issues,” she added.

Executive directors of state Catholic conferences met in Washington, D.C., Dec. 3-7 to discuss many of these issues. An entire session was devoted to assessing the impact of the welfare bill. Officials have questions about how the new federal changes will mesh with changes that many states have already enacted in their state welfare, housing, and medical assistance programs. Pennsylvania, for example, passed a state welfare reform plan last year as well as limits on who can receive state medical assistance—and all that was signed into law before the federal welfare changes were enacted.

“We were so involved in the state changes to welfare and medical assistance last year; now we have to deal with the impact of the federal welfare reform as well,” said Perpetua.

Patricia King of the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC) Office on Domestic Social Development, added: “The state conference directors will be getting together to discuss ways to work more effectively on the state level. In many ways, the state conferences will be taking the lead role on this issue in the future.”

All of these changes affect a multitude of Catholic organizations. While Catholic Social Services in many states provide a variety of services to low-income Americans of all religions, changes to federal or state government medical assistance will have a major impact on Catholic hospitals and Catholic nursing homes. Any proposed changes to housing aid will directly hit Church-run hospices.

“State conferences will need to work closely with the individual dioceses, because these changes affect such a wide variety of programs and services,” said Perpetua. “We really need to coordinate our efforts. As we provide more services to a greater number of people, we need to be involved in how these services are reimbursed by the government.

Susan Gibbs, communications director for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (the nation's sixth largest See), said: “We have already seen an increase in (the number of) people asking for assistance now that the state has acted. We expect an even greater increase now that the federal welfare reform bill has passed.”

Lorraine Knight of Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, said that “[t]he federal government has told us that they want people to move from welfare to work. Now we need to put our emphasis on enhancing people's employment possibilities. We will try to work with people to make them self-sufficient.”

Knight indicated that the Church will be involved in a whole range of programs, from traditional social services to job training and employment counseling to affordable housing, which is a new area for many Church organizations.

Many state leaders also want closer coordination between state conferences and Catholic Charities, since many of the federal changes could have an impact on government contracts and could result in new funding needs at the local level.

One item that may work in the Church's favor is a provision in the federal bill that makes it easier for states and localities to contract with Church-run facilities for the delivery of welfare and other services. This could prove to be a major help for many recipients of public assistance who otherwise could not be able to choose Church-run day care, job training, drug treatment, or medical care.

“We are glad that provision was added, but there still are not adequate funds for many of these programs to meet the needs of all the people,” said the USCC's King.

Catholic leaders say the Church will do its best to meet the new challenges, but emphasize the need to find creative approaches to fund and implement programs. “Now that the focus has shifted to the states, state conferences will need to be the coordinating group for many issues,” said Perpetua. “But we will need to involve the whole Catholic community, including dioceses and individual churches, to deal with these issues.”

Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.