Army’s U.S. Social Workers Confer

Important Conference Convenes with Agenda of Welfare Reform

One hundred thirty delegates of the Western Territory will meet with another 270 delegates from the United States and Canada at the fourth National Salvation Army Social Services Conference in San Diego, Calif., March 15 – 19, 1997.

The conference is convened to celebrate and promote, to shape and advance the community services of The Salvation Army. Highlights will include plenary presentations by the national commander, Commissioner Robert Watson, Dr. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action and Philip Yancey of the editorial staff of Christianity Today, along with more than 55 focused workshops and seminars. Tours of local programs round out a full agenda.

The conference takes place at a time when the nation’s welfare system is undergoing profound change. The various aspects of welfare reform legislation will drastically alter the climate in which the Army and other non-profit organizations work. We may find ourselves in remarkable and new roles in contracting with government or with for-profit groups to carry out various aspects of the new programs. We will almost certainly find ourselves faced with increasing need for our programs of material aid and counseling as cutbacks in the levels of assistance and the denial of assistance to various individuals take hold.

The growing need in our communities may be perceived as a distraction or as an opportunity. We do not need greater numbers to serve. We have had enormous growth in the number of persons receiving our services over the last decade. Partly as a result of this, we have reemphasized meeting basic needs; feeding programs and food pantries have proliferated. While we have added to our rehabilitation and transitional work, and have succeeded in moving many from need to independence again, of necessity, we have been caught up in supplementing and supporting large numbers of persons living on the margins, whether through low-paying and unreliable employment or through public assistance programs.

At its best, welfare reform challenges us to move beyond supplementation and maintenance. To the extent welfare reform is about getting people out of poverty, not just off welfare, we will want to be behind these changes and a part of making it work, whether in partnering with governments or working on our own to further these goals.

A simple way we might accomplish this would be to convene support groups for families on welfare with whom we are already acquainted and who are facing profound changes in their lives. One can only imagine the anxiety and concern created among welfare recipients who may have a limited understanding of what will be taking place in the future or the options open to them.

It would be a simple but profound service to bring welfare moms together in a supportive, non-threatening environment and help them to hear and process the new information in a way they can understand, and then begin to think with one another of what this means personally and what steps they might begin to take. Such group meetings might be a one-time event, or an ongoing experience that would provide support, encouragement and continuing information along the way. One wonders if such might be the nucleus of a new Home League outreach?

But we must also plan to “be there” for those who suffer the fallout of welfare reform related changes: cutbacks in the size of already marginal welfare grants; cutback in food stamp allocations; discontinuance of benefits to certain SSI recipients; and, not least, loss of benefits for those who fail to make it to the work force within the allotted two-year time lines.

Welfare reform represents at best a “tough love” approach to behavioral change, leaning heavily on pain, or the threat of pain, i.e. the cut off of benefits, as a motivational tool. A second and essential aspect of motivation is hope, the expectation things can be better. We are experts in hope: It is a realistic hope rooted in our confidence in the God-given capacity of individuals to choose, to change; rooted in the redeemability of all; rooted in the plus-power of the gospel.

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