Fact-Finders & Rescuers: UU Responses to Welfare Reform
by Rita Rousseau

“To be more than a social club, we have to take our values into the world and do something with them,” says Lee Pardee, a member of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, New York.

Pardee’s congregation is doing just that, by working with the Urban Justice Center, a New York City social advocacy group, on tracking and responding to the effects of recent changes in welfare laws (see sidebar below). In the course of their work, they’ve found some alarming but not unexpected problems: basic support systems have been ignored in the rush to reform, Pardee says, naming “housing, food, jobs, income, a place to live. We haven’t really seen what will happen. . . . It looks like we’re headed for a big blowup” when welfare recipients reach the time limits after which their families are cut off from further public aid.

We’ve passed this way before, says UUA President the Rev. John Buehrens. “I’m reminded of what was done in the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill,” he says. “Promises were made for a less controlling system, which never materialized. Instead, we filled the streets of our cities with people who were abandoned and homeless.”

While Buehrens admits that “welfare did—and still does—need reform,” he worries, like Pardee, that welfare restructuring has not been accompanied by legislation funding child care, training, transportation, health insurance, or other social supports. “I fear that what we are doing under the guise of welfare reform is crippling the children of a broad segment of our population,” he says, “and that we will pay a deep price.”

But Buehrens—who has joined an across-the-political-spectrum coalition of 40-odd national religious leaders to speak out on welfare and poverty issues—sees hope in the shift of responsibility for welfare reform to the states. “This puts accountability where it’s most effective,” he argues. “State legislators and state agencies are not going to abandon their citizens and create social havoc. States will be accountable to their own citizens—and there are other citizens who need to speak up.”

Exactly, says another prominent UU clergyman, the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, minister emeritus of First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, a long-time social justice activist and leading light in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. “Congress is pushing more and more responsibility onto the states, so the real action these days is in statehouses,” Mendelsohn points out. “Legislators need to be educated about the shift in power, and so do ordinary citizens. If you’re going to look for excitement in terms of trying to do good, the best place to look is the state legislature.”

Mendelsohn knows what he’s talking about: He helped found the Tuckerman Coalition, a state lobbying effort funded by Massachusetts clergy and lay leaders that grew out of the 172-year-old UU Urban Ministry of Boston. The coalition (named for the Urban Ministry’s founder, the Rev. Joseph Tuckerman) hired a lobbyist who drilled coalition members in how to approach state legislators. Even for an experienced activist like Mendelsohn, it was a revelation. “We actually got acquainted with our legislators,” he says, “and discovered that for the most part they were quite bright people, not just a bunch of freeloaders. There’s a good deal of intelligence in the legislature.”

The group focused at first on narrow issues they perceived as winnable. They helped secure passage of a bill funding school breakfast and lunch programs during the summer. Then they lobbied for a bill funding home health visits for impoverished teenage mothers and their newborns. With help from members of their congregations who testified before legislative hearings on their own difficulties as new mothers, they scored a second victory.

But late 1998 saw coalition members in a protracted battle: trying to win delays and exemptions to back-to-work deadlines that would drop 20,000 families off welfare by July. “We’re trying to call attention to the fact that these families will be left without opportunities for job training or child care,” says the Rev. John E. Gibbons, current minister of First Parish of Bedford. “The people who will be hurt most are the children of Massachusetts.”

Going Upriver
Mendelsohn, Gibbons, and their group are not alone. Reacting to changes in the welfare law with varying degrees of despair and hope, anger and compassion, Unitarian Universalists around the country are becoming welfare activists. Their activism takes many forms, for as Buehrens points out, “There is no such thing as one UU response to an issue like this.”

A moral fable often told in UU circles concerns a village on the bank of a raging river. One day, a drowning woman comes coursing down the stream and passes the village, screaming for help. The villagers dive in and save her. But the next day, a child is seen struggling in the water, and he, too, must be rescued. Each day, new victims are pulled from the torrent. At last, the villagers send a delegation upstream to find out who’s throwing people in.

UUs have found many ways of joining the fact-finding delegation. One is to take part in a coalition that supports an established welfare advocacy organization. Two New York City UU churches, for instance, have joined the Urban Justice Center’s campaign of resistance to the city’s Work Experience Program (WEP), a particularly draconian form of workfare that forces public aid recipients into public sector or nonprofit sector jobs in order to keep their benefits. WEP workers who miss even one day of work, for any reason, are kicked off the rolls and must reapply.

Tracy Morgan, who’s in charge of documentation at the Urban Justice Center, says her organization has both practical and moral objections to WEP. A New York State Department of Labor report predicts that from now through 2002 there will be “700,000 [state residents] looking for entry-level jobs and 97,000 entry-level jobs made available,” says Morgan. “Teaching people job skills looks nice, but when we have a 600,000-job shortage, the skills don’t matter. The competition is ferocious—and workfare eliminates jobs.” Massive layoffs of low-wage workers in such city departments as parks and sanitation have closely followed the arrival of WEP workers, Morgan says. Besides, she argues, WEP is useless as a training tool (because few WEP jobs involve transferable skills) and discriminates against people with disabilities (because the jobs often require physical labor).

When the Urban Justice Center asked churches and community organizations not to accept the WEP workers they were being offered, the Community Church of New York in Manhattan and the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn were happy to comply. Members of the Brooklyn church’s social justice committee brought the issue before the congregation in a community forum on the pros and cons of WEP. “We couldn’t even get anyone from the city government to do the pro side,” says Lee Pardee, who chaired the committee. “We ended up with a monsignor from the Catholic archdiocese. They had felt an obligation to try to get people jobs but had very little success.”

Pardee later mentioned to the Urban Justice Center’s director that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee had undertaken a five-state study monitoring welfare reform (see sidebar p. 24). That conversation inspired an Urban Justice Center research project that uses volunteers from around the city—including four retired members of the Brooklyn UU congregation—to interview WEP workers outside their employment centers. But unlike the UUSC’s Welfare and Human Rights Monitoring Project, which is gathering the stories of welfare recipients under the new law in order to spotlight human rights abuses, the Urban Justice Center’s study aims to gather statistics.

It’s important work, says Larry Stevens-Miles, one of the Brooklyn UU volunteers, who uses his Spanish to interview WEP participants on their experiences with the new program. “Look, the people who run this country are changing the way assistance is given to people who need it,” says Stevens-Miles. “We need to make the process as fair as possible, and the only way we can do that is to find out the experiences of people going through the process. We don’t always know what happens. Welfare rolls are down, no doubt, but what happens to people who are no longer on welfare? Did they get jobs? Commit suicide? Go back to their native countries? I try to listen to positive things people say as well as the negative things. If I can get that far in my own thinking, what I write down will be more useful.”

Putting the Community on Trial
Research can also shade over into advocacy, as when the West Seattle, Washington, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship put their community and state on trial. Following the format of a public television program they had seen on public transit issues, the committee planned a mock trial in which a jury/audience would debate and vote on the question “Have we done enough for children in poverty?” Approaching community agencies and churches, the group received enthusiastic offers of help—including expert testimony.

When the mock trial convened last July in a local high school auditorium, it gained an air of authority from the presence of Washington Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge as presiding judge and Democratic State Rep. Dow Constantine as defense attorney. UU Fellowship member Tracy Burrows, acting as prosecuting attorney, called witnesses including the principal of a local grade school 90 percent of whose students come from poor families, the director of a community day care center for poor children, a public health clinic doctor, and a homeless teenage mother.

Although he called no witnesses, Constantine mounted a vigorous defense, seeing hope in recent reductions in welfare caseloads and the increased role of local churches in providing a social safety net. After the testimony, the question was turned over to the jury/audience of about 50, which found the community guilty of neglecting poor kids. Justice Talmadge finished by sentencing everyone present “to continue living in this community with what your acts have caused, and to experience their consequences.”

The mock trial received regional newspaper coverage and was videotaped for further use as an educational tool. It also encouraged networking, says Kathy Pruitt, a member of the West Seattle UU Fellowship and one of the mock trial’s organizers. “At the end of the trial, we pulled people together into small groups to brainstorm different ideas—tutoring, working on legislation. We talked concretely about what people would like to do and how to do it,” Pruitt says. One possible outcome: a newsletter on poverty and welfare issues. Equally important, Pruitt notes, the trial “brought together a group of progressive churches and agencies that has the potential of coming together around other issues.”

Aerial Reconnaisance
If groups like the Seattle and New York City congregations are going upriver to gather facts, the Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community (UUJEC), is conducting aerial reconnaissance to get the bigger picture.

“We don’t actually have a policy on welfare reform as such,” says Ron Chew, a member of Third Unitarian Church in Chicago and cochair of UUJEC. To his group, a focus on such policy specifics obscures the underlying issue: the unjust US class structure. “We have great concern over the fact that people are not getting living-wage jobs and might not even get minimum-wage jobs,” he says. “And the economic impact of people going off welfare is pushing wage levels down.”

Chew has statistics to back up his assertions:

* On the lack of living-wage jobs: “A study by the Chicago Urban League calculated a living annual wage at $25,000. To earn this, you’d have to make $13 an hour working full-time. We’re not even in the ballpark.”
* On the lack of minimum-wage jobs: “Here’s a report by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. . . . According to the findings, only 38 percent of 7,500 adult welfare recipients in Wisconsin who were dropped from cash assistance earned as much as a full-time minimum-wage worker.”
* On the downward push in wage levels: “The Economic Policy Institute calculates that the influx of welfare recipients into low-wage jobs will reduce the wages of the bottom 30 percent of the workforce by 12 percent.”

Rescue Operations
While Chew and the other fact-finders do their important work upriver, people are still drowning, and they still require rescue. The rescuers include members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in San Dieguito, California, who decided to aid poor job-seekers by buying them bus passes and clothing coupons. “What we want to do is raise consciousness,” says Jill Hansen of the church’s social action committee. “But we get to people in different ways.” And many church members who hesitate to write letters to their congresspeople or go to protest marches are happy to offer practical help.

Meanwhile, in Spokane, Washington, the Unitarian Universalist Church’s five-year-old committee on children’s issues has gotten behind the Single Parent Outreach Connection (SPOC)—an agency cofounded by church member Elizabeth Keeler to help single mothers facing the transition from welfare to work. While SPOC arranged workshops in job-hunting and self-esteem and placed women in internships that led to permanent jobs or at least to more impressive r?sum?s, the church gave the mothers financial and other practical help. “We tried to set up connections between members of the church and parents who needed assistance,” says Julie Rector, a church member who has sat on SPOC’s board. Church members fixed cars and washing machines and donated furniture and clothing.

With the coming of welfare reform, SPOC faced new challenges. Its workshops and internships had such a good track record that the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) provided a flood of referrals. The UU church donated use of its premises—all day, every weekday, for two weeks at a time. With its minimal overhead, SPOC survived on money the state gave it to run the workshops.

But then SPOC, like so many of the women it serves, suffered a sudden reversal of fortune: it lost its contract to run the job-training workshops, leaving it without financial resources. Now, says Rector, “The church is the only thing keeping the doors open” at SPOC. The agency now runs a drop-in center for low-income people, including a food bank, a medical program, emergency assistance with utility bills, and referrals to other agencies. The church has made SPOC its main social-action project. A summer fund-raiser netted $400 for the beleaguered agency with just a few quick telephone calls to church members.

Like fact-finding missions, rescue operations can help furnish insights and information. “Because SPOC is there, because so many people in the church have helped out, it’s an easy way to make a direct connection with people who are less fortunate,” says Rector. “Otherwise, we’d have to go out and look for people to help.”

Getting involved in the lives of poor women gave the church’s SPOC volunteers an idea of the shortcomings of welfare reform as it applies to their community. Rector speaks of the “sense of doom” the volunteers are feeling for welfare recipients being asked to find jobs in the area. “Spokane has the highest ratio of low-income people of any city in the state,” she says. “The average wage is about $15,000 or $20,000, and living on $15,000 is a challenge for a single woman with just two children. The people who are being hurt the most are children. We all feel that the direction welfare has taken is very unfair.”

Bob Stubbs of Framingham, Massachusetts, who cochairs UUJEC along with Ron Chew, says Unitarian Universalists like Rector are beginning to get the message that welfare reform is tied to larger economic issues. He was buoyed by the passage at last summer’s General Assembly of a resolution calling for Unitarian Universalists to work for economic justice.

For him, economic justice is the key that unlocks all the other issues with which UUs have been grappling in recent years. “This resolution takes all the racial, cultural, social justice, and economic issues, wraps them up, and says, ÔWe need to do something about all this,’” he notes. “Unitarian Universalists talk about leadership, about taking an interest in a broader world, but we don’t really do it. Well, here’s the chance. It’s all happening right now, under our feet.”

Rita Rousseau is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a member of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois.

Accompanying sidebars:

The End of Welfare as We Know It
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, passed by the Congress and signed by President Clinton, scrapped the 60-year-old guarantee of assistance to families with dependent children (AFDC), replacing it with block grant funding to states for temporary assistance to needy families (TANF).

And Congress was serious when it said “temporary”: the act sets a two-year limit for any stint on public assistance and a lifetime limit of five years. Another provision of the act rewards states with cash bonuses for slashing public-assistance caseloads. In many other ways, states can set their own rules for those receiving assistance, so that the US, in effect, now has 50 public aid systems instead of one.

As laws and regulations were drafted in each state capital, stark differences emerged. Some state systems offered recipients job training and support services such as drug treatment; others were harsh and punitive, with women being forced to take a job, any job, immediately, even if it meant dropping out of college or leaving children with inadequate care. In at least one state (New Jersey), abortions began to rise after additional children born to families on public assistance were deemed ineligible for benefits.

Proponents hailed the new systems as a giant step away from a culture of dependency and toward self-sufficiency. But critics charged that devolution—a term for letting the states determine how welfare funds are spent—was a reckless social experiment undertaken with no real analysis of the causes of poverty or of the economic struggles facing the minimum-wage work force; often without training, child care, transportation, or other support systems; and without any provision for tracking the fates of those being dropped from the public assistance rolls.

National Summit on Racial and Economic Justice announced
From April 22 to April 25, the UUA Washington Office for Faith in Action and the UU Service Committee are cosponsoring a National Summit on Racial and Economic Justice in Washington, DC.  Participants will hear expert speakers, meet UU and other activists, learn about upcoming legislation, and visit their senators and representatives.  The estimated cost, including most meals, is $275.

For more information, contact the Rev. Meg Riley at (202) 296-4672; uuawo@aol.com.

Welfare recipients in “double bind,” says UU Service Committee report
Is welfare reform working? Proponents claim success when public-assistance rolls shrink. Welfare rights activists, however, say that many who have been dropped from public aid have not found living-wage jobs but have only sunk deeper into poverty and hopelessness. Lack of follow-up by government makes it impossible to know which view is right.

That’s why the Welfare and Human Rights Monitoring Project of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is being watched so closely by policy-makers and the media.

The project began when Jackie Ladd, who heads up UUSC’s Promise the Children advocacy initiative, met Vicky Steinitz, a University of Massachusetts professor looking for help with a study of welfare reform in the state, which had passed its own welfare reform law in 1995, well before national legislation was enacted. What did welfare reform have to do with children’s issues? “Seventy percent of the people who receive welfare are children,” Ladd explains.

After initial research among welfare recipients in Massachusetts, Steinitz turned to the four other states where UUSC has staffed a statewide Promise the Children initiative (Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, and California). The nearly 600 case histories she assembled recount problems “so similar it makes my eyes glaze over,” Ladd says.

The resulting report—titled “Is It Reform?”—was released last May to favorable press coverage and distributed to members of Congress. (US Rep. Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, was so impressed she made 500 copies to pass out in her district.) It says the new welfare programs put recipients in “double binds” that can make it all but impossible for them ever to achieve economic independence. For instance, it finds that

* Recipients have been saddled with conflicting requirements. Teen mothers, for example, have been forced into structured living arrangements in communities far from their work, school, or child care.
* Welfare systems actively sabotage recipients. To discourage claims, caseworkers have been known to withhold information or require unobtainable documentation. In a misguided effort to crack down on deadbeat dads, state welfare offices have insisted that women on assistance provide extensive information about their children’s fathers—whether or not they have such information and whether or not supplying it will invite further abuse from a batterer or rapist.
* Work requirements force recipients to drop out of education and training programs that could prepare them for a better economic future.
* The part-time and minimum-wage jobs available to those forced off welfare don’t pay enough to cover housing, food, transportation, and child care.

Based on the report, the UUSC has recommended basic changes in the welfare reform law and state regulations. These include eliminating the five-year benefits limit or developing more flexible exemptions; establishing more realistic work-participation rules; and specifying that education and job training will satisfy work requirements. The UUSC also suggests that welfare recipients be consulted in the design and evaluation of laws and regulations and that rewards go to states that help welfare recipients become self-sufficient, not to those that simply reduce welfare rolls. Equally important, the UUSC says, the minimum wage should be increased and indexed to inflation.

The monitoring project is still a work in progress; Ladd says UUSC is committed to an “annual temperature-taking” through 2002. Since publication of the 1998 report, Connecticut has been dropped from the ongoing study and Alabama added, so that conditions can be evaluated in a less urbanized state.

Armed with statistics and recommendations, UUSC activists continue to work aggressively as advocates for the poor. Now, of course, most of the action is in the statehouses rather than Washington, and the most concentrated efforts have been aimed at the five states with professional Promise the Children coordinators.

UUSC members in the other 45 states also get encouragement and assistance from the national office. During a biweekly conference call, activists from around the country trade information, strategy tips, and pats on the back. There’s also a computer bulletin board with issue information that members can forward to other computer networks for concerned citizens.

For a free copy of the UUSC report, call Jackie Ladd at (617) 868-6600, ext. 218.

US Poverty Index

Poverty line for a family of four as set by the US Census Bureau and the US Department of Health and Human Services:  $16,400

Median income of all poor families:  $10,300

Minimum wage as of September 1997, after two years of phased-in increases raised it from $4.25 per hour :  $5.15 per hour

Annual salary for a full-time worker earning minimum wage:  $10,712

Percentage of Americans who are poor:  13.3

Percentage of poor Americans who are children under 18:  40

Percentage of US children who are poor:  20

Percentage of single mothers who are poor:  41

Percentage of elderly Americans who are poor:  10

Percentage of elderly Americans who were poor in 1960, before Social Security cost-of-living increases and Medicare:  35

Percentage of white Americans who are poor:  11

Percentage of African Americans who are poor:  26.5

Percentage of Latino/as who are poor:  27

Percentage of working poor making $7 or less per hour who lack medical insurance:  43

Budget of AFDC (now TANF) in 1997:  $16 billion

Budget of the Defense Department in 1997:  $248.7 billion

Information from the US Census Bureau report, October 1, 1998, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

—Colleen O’Connor

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