Breaking Down the Wall

A quiet revolution is taking place as religious groups begin ministering to the poor using government money -- and succeeding where government couldn't. But eternal vigilance may be the real price.

The church subcontracted with the Annie Malone agency, whose director is a member of their congregation, and found themselves stymied by their lack of autonomy. "You get cut off from communication with the state," explains Mims. "The contractor does that and is very jealous of your having that relationship. It's like being in a fog. We don't get paid (by the state), and we don't know why." Stacey Powers, who directs Union Memorial's welfare-to-work program, says they've been reimbursed only up to September -- and not in full. The director of Annie Malone's program, Peter Buckner, says the subcontracting relationship is "working out fine" and claims the state's just slow. Still, Mims has decided that "one of the dangers of charitable choice is that traditional agencies will use the churches for funding, and for access to proposals, and churches won't have the autonomy they need."

Even without it, Union Memorial's doing well: Powers says they've placed more than 50 clients already. According to Buckner, Annie Malone has placed about 13 of 29 clients, and the other (nonreligious) subcontractor, DART, has placed 2 of 50. "Why the difference? Because being a church, our concern is not just dealing with people socially and psychologically," says Mims. "The state has gotten the roll down 47 percent or so; they've gotten to their hard-core people, and a lot of the issues are spiritual problems."

Unfortunately, you need earthly resources to wrestle them. Mims' congregation has been pressed to subsidize the daycare program (the state requires a 4:1 infant/caregiver ratio that makes it impossible to break even, explains Mims), provide the van to transport clients, and run food and clothing and mentoring programs. (That way, Powers can run the welfare-to-work program with a firm, businesslike hand, holding people accountable without worrying that they'll starve.)

When theorists worry that FBOs will glue themselves to government money, losing their self-sufficiency and integrity, Mims just chuckles: "I wish I could get enough funding to become dependent on it!" As for religions' becoming, as one pundit warned, "toothless watchdogs of the state that feeds them," Mims wants just the opposite: "to work with politicians to deal with the policies of the state and the feds that create poverty."

That raises the big question: What happens a few years from now, when they're still pouring extra resources into a black hole of need? What happens this June, when the state starts cutting cash assistance? What if FBOs like Union Memorial find themselves responsible for everybody who hasn't found work?

"Why not be responsible?" counters Powers, her eyes lighting like a struck match. "That's the call of being a Christian, isn't it?"

The Sound of the Trumpet
Clearly FBOs are bringing fresh energy and transcendent purpose to a fight everybody else was ready to concede. But is charitable choice the best, most thoughtful way for this to happen -- or just the nicest way for the state to pass a torch that's burning its fingers?

Some secular experts worry that the very premise is a distortion.
"People like Ashcroft generally believe the churches have a healing and uplifting mission that is transferable to people on welfare," says Peter DeSimone, director of the Missouri Association of Social Workers. "What they are saying is that there is something wrong with the people on welfare. It's not an economic system that doesn't work for everybody, it's not racism, it's personal. I think that's nonsense. Most poor people are in bad shape because they don't have enough money, opportunity or education. The same things that are said about them -- that they are lazy, thick, lax -- were said about immigrants early in this century."

DeSimone also worries about the FBOs themselves. Until now, they've been haloed heroes, bailing people out of crises, picking up the pieces when the state wouldn't. "Once they allow themselves to get in the business of deciding whether someone is worthy of assistance, they may find themselves regretting it. It's essentially a church deciding to be a government agency."

That means reporting people to be sanctioned instead of forgiving them 70-times-seven. It means competing against other FBOs for contracts. It means setting up enough structure to withstand audits and program evaluations, and to measure performance in the units the contract dictates. "That really kind of goes against the grain of who we are as Christians," admits Kessler. "Many churches don't understand outcome-based funding; they just want the money so they can go do good with it."

Mark Harvey is a United Methodist minister who coordinates social services at Kingdom House. He believes devoutly in the ability of churches to "wrap their arms around people," but he's honest about the tensions of running a bureaucratic program as an FBO. "We do not intend to be sanctioners for DFS," he says crisply, "so we are being very careful on the front end not to sign up anyone we feel will make us go there. As a result, we've not been paid a penny, partly because we've failed to 'engage' clients. Some other contractors are coding families into the computer system to 'claim' the cases and begin billing upon referral, before they've even contracted the family. Their incentives make them get the paperwork in documenting 'pacts' and 'work requirements met,' even if in truth the folks are not meeting the work requirements at all. Our faith ethics won't let us go there. And that may undo us."

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