With Churches' Help, Counties Take on Welfare Reform

WHILE WELFARE REFORMERS have worked on the federal and state level to try to move welfare recipients from welfare to work, innovative local governments have not waited for dictates from Capitol Hill or the statehouse. Counties like Anne Arundel in Maryland have been working with community groups to help move people off the welfare rolls for good.

In Anne Arundel, a suburban county located south and east of Baltimore and north and east of Washington, D.C., the county government has been working with local Church groups, including several Catholic parishes, to fashion a program to help welfare recipients in the county find gainful employment. The Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services began the Community Directed Assistance Program (CDAP) in 1994, and Catholic churches in the county have been involved with the program almost from its inception.

“The response from the Churches has been tremendous,” said Christine Poulsen, special programs manager for the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services and the supervisor of the CDAPprogram. “They have really gone out of their way to help us.”

When families apply for welfare benefits in Anne Arundel, they are offered the option of participating in the CDAP program, where a community group works with the family members to get them back on their feet. The family is then asked if they wish to work with a Church group as their sponsor. Participating sponsors are then sent a list of recommended participants; the Church group may wish to interview the prospective participant to see if they can work together. Once a sponsor is chosen, the Church group is sent a year's worth of state and county welfare benefits for that family as a “community assistance grant” from the county.

The sponsor agrees to help the family manage those funds and find a job in the course of a six-month period. Single mothers (who are the most likely to enroll in CDAP) with two children would receive $383 per month from the state and county. That money is held by the sponsor to be distributed as necessary to help the welfare recipient find gainful employment in a six-month period.

“Having that lump sum ($4800 for the year) helps the family feel that they have a little cushion, and it allows the sponsoring group to manage that money with the family for the short-term to get people back on their feet,” Poulsen noted.

When they enroll in the program, welfare recipients agree to waive all rights to federal cash assistance while retaining the right to apply for food stamps and medical assistance. By excluding federal cash assistance, Anne Arundel did not need to go through the cumbersome federal waiver process that was then required when a state or locality desired to use federal welfare dollars in innovative ways. (The new federal welfare law now in effect allows states much greater flexibility in the disbursement of these funds.) Under the CDAP program, the Social Services Department simply receives the approval of the Maryland Department of Human Resources and the Anne Arundel county executive's office.

Each participant has different problems and different barriers to self-sufficiency that must be overcome. Some people may need help finding safe housing, others may need to find day care, and still others may need interviewing and job search help. Many of the Church groups set up committees to work with the families, with each committee member playing a different role in reaching the ultimate goal of getting the family off the welfare rolls.

“We have found that many people are limited in finding jobs because they do not have reliable transportation,” said Mimi Cochrane, the coordinator for the CDAPprogram at St. Mary's Church in Annapolis. “Finding them a way to get to and from a job is just as important as finding them a job in the first place.”

In Anne Arundel County, six Catholic churches are participants in the CDAP program. Our Lady of the Fields in Davidsonville began participating in the program almost from its beginning in 1994, and other parishes quickly followed suit. Other participating Catholic churches include: St. Andrews by the Bay in Cape St. Clair, St. John's in Severna Park, St. Mary's in Annapolis, Holy Family in Davidsonville, and our Lady of Sorrows in Owensville. In all, 24 county churches of different denominations participate in the CDAP program.

The program has had some notable success. Twenty-six participants have completed it so far, and only four are back on conventional welfare.

Many Catholic parishes organize their CDAP participation around the charitable work of the parish chapter of the St. Vincent De Paul Society. At St. Mary's parish, for example, the St. Vincent De Paul Society already helps up to 40 people each week with basic necessities like food, medicine, and clothing, according to Cochrane. The members of the CDAP committee at St. Mary's are also St. Vincent De Paul members.

“Having the St. Vincent De Paul Society already in place at so many parishes has made it very easy for Catholic churches to participate in the CDAP program,” said Poulsen, who is Catholic. “Many churches are organizing their CDAP activities around the efforts of the Society.”

Anne Arundel Catholic parishes have won plaudits from local government leaders for their work on the CDAP program. “The Catholic churches have been extremely supportive of the CDAPprogram,” said John Gary, Anne Arundel county executive. “The Catholic community has taken a leadership role in helping the less fortunate in our county. CDAP would never have been this successful without the efforts of Catholics and people of all different faiths who have done so much to make this program work.”

Patricia King, policy advisor for the Department of Domestic Social Welfare at the U.S. Catholic Conference, also praised the program. “[It] seems to be a wonderful model for how our parishes can refine their charitable work,” she said. “It's a great example of what good church members can do to help their fellow citizens.”

King did note, however, that the welfare changes taking place at the federal and state level should move local parishes to become involved in the public policy arena.

“This kind of charitable activity is essential, but we still need a political voice at the state and federal level,” she said. “Catholics need to speak out about the dramatic changes to these programs. We need both service and advocacy— and ultimately the strength of your advocacy is rooted in the strength of your service.”

Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.