Welfare-to-Work: Churches Play Central Role in Transformation of Lives

WASHINGTON—Federal welfare reform has only been in effect since August 1996, but states across America have been experimenting with their own welfare-to-work programs for years. Yet, throughout the country, no local government can make the claim made by the previously obscure jurisdiction of Ottawa County, Mich.

In September, Ottawa County became a national welfare-to-work case study when it became the first county to place all its welfare recipients into full-time private-sector jobs.

Part of a pilot program for Michigan's innovative “Project Zero,” Ottawa County has utilized many local churches, including two Catholic parishes, to help mentor welfare recipients as they make the transition from lives of dependence to independence. Project Zero is a comprehensive state government welfare-reform initiative introduced by six Michigan counties in July 1996.

The latest in a long line of welfare reforms initiated by Republican Gov. John Engler, Project Zero is designed to get all able-bodied welfare recipients into private-sector unsubsidized jobs. Part of the strategy for Project Zero is to eliminate barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. In Ottawa County, one of six target counties, that means the state has engaged in special efforts to provide related services that help former welfare recipients adjust to life on the job. The state provides child care for welfare mothers entering the workforce, and has contracted with KanDu Industries, a locally-based private firm, to provide job training and work-readiness services. In addition, federal grants were used to develop Life Services System, a local transportation network for county residents.

Ottawa County is a remote conservative county of more than 210,000 people located on the lower west side of Michigan's “lower peninsula” along Lake Michigan. The county would seem to be a good candidate for welfare to work success. The county has a thriving economy, with unemployment running at 2.7% (well below the national average of just less than 5%, and the Michigan state average of 3.9%). Many companies are growing fast, especially in furniture making, food processing, and auto parts. Less than 1% percent of its citizens receive public assistance, compared with nearly 4% nationally.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the county has no large urban areas—there are no precincts that can be called pockets of poverty as we see in major cities today. With a growing private sector, many companies are finding the traditional labor pool is dwindling. Accordingly, many employers are willing to broaden their hiring practices to access a new workforce of former welfare recipients.

But even with sufficient jobs available, difficulties with child care and transportation might have foiled the success of welfare to work. So Ottawa and other Michigan counties are working with Church organizations to provide individual mentoring services to welfare recipients as they enter the job market. Ottawa County, using state support, has entered into a contract with Good Samaritan Ministries to oversee Church participation in mentoring programs with welfare recipients who sign up. Good Samaritan is affiliated with Love INC (Love In the Name of Christ), a group of non-profit Christian ministries that works with the poor. Good Samaritan has a $99,000 contract to coordinate the countywide mentoring program.

“We find that when people move off welfare, small events can turn into catastrophes,” said Margarete Gravina, a spokesperson for the Michigan Family Independence Agency (formerly the Department of Social Services), which coordinates Project Zero. “A baby-sitter would be sick or the car would break down, and people were quitting their jobs. The mentors at our Churches help people work through these problems and allow them to stay on the job.”

While Ottawa County has few Catholic parishes (only two of the 25 participating churches are Catholic), the efforts of churches there show the impact that individual churches can have in the lives of welfare recipients who want to work but need special assistance. Most of the churches involved are Dutch reform, Christian reform, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Assembly of God. As Project Zero expands to other counties with larger Catholic populations, Michigan officials expect to work more closely with a greater number of Catholic parishes throughout the state.

Our Lady of the Lake and St. Francis, both in Holland, Mich., are the two Catholic churches that have been most involved in the mentoring program.

“We have received great support from these Catholic churches,” said Brian Telfor, director of relational ministries at Good Samaritan. “They have been very helpful right from the beginning of the program.”

All welfare recipients in Ottawa County have the option of signing up for mentoring services, and since last July more than 150 have done so. Each of these people is referred to a participating church. The church works with Good Samaritan to develop mentoring teams of four to six people at the church who will work with a welfare family. The teams are expected to provide, according to program materials, friendship and moral support, assistance with transportation, budgeting, housing, household expenses, child care, and where appropriate, GED training.

“They help with finding a day care provider or helping to get the car fixed,” said Gravina. “They might help with job search or interview skills. These things seem routine, but they can have a major impact.”

The teams are asked to have some form of contact with the welfare family at least once a week. Sometimes the contact is a quick phone call, and other times it could be going out for lunch or dinner or a visit to the home.

“The team works with the family to find a level of contact that works for everyone,” said Telfor.

The mentoring makes no bones about the fact that it is completely church-based, but outright proselytizing is prohibited.

“We make it very clear that we are Christians, but there is no mandatory church attendance or anything like that,” said Telfor. “We have to walk a fine line.”

He did say that there is a spiritual aspect to the relationship between a mentoring team and a welfare family. “As the relationship develops, there will often be discussion about why the Church is involved and the mission of the Church. Often a family might want to find out more about the Church and might even begin attending services on their own.”

At the Catholic parishes, the mentoring teams have been actively involved with former welfare recipients as well as with people who are now off welfare but who are struggling to move from a minimum wage job to one that pays more.

“We are working with families to help them get their feet on the ground,” said Sister Pat Lamb, who coordinates mentoring for St. Francis and Our Lady of the Lake. “Sometimes that means helping them get off welfare, and sometimes it means helping them get a better job.”

Mentoring teams are involved in the full range of issues, but Sister Lamb has found that welfare families need a great deal of assistance simply setting and sticking to a monthly budget. “We try to teach them how to manage their money so that they are not always struggling,” she said. Six parishioners at the two churches have been trained as budget counselors through Good Samaritan.

“Just giving out money was not helping these people,” said Sister Lamb in discussing the recent welfare changes in Michigan and elsewhere. “We need to help them develop their full potential as human beings. That is the only way they are going to live a fuller and more productive life.”

“We have to live the Gospel. We have to reach out to those in need and help them so that they can become independent again.”

Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.