The journey from welfare to independence
by Gordon Bingham –
Social Services Secretary
Where were you last New Year’s Eve? At 11:45 p.m. I was standing in the middle of Blackfriars Bridge in London, England, trying to hold on to the little bit of “turf” I had been protecting for the past two hours or more, now reduced to foot-shuffling room only, and cheek by jowl with hundreds of thousands of others gathered along the Thames to wait for the new millennium. If the claustrophobia wasn’t enough to make me anxious, I was also keeping an eye out for any signs of the Y2K bug.
I wouldn’t have been out there at all if I hadn’t known that all points east of us had survived the New Year without a problem. Still, as the old year ran out, and with any possibility of getting off the bridge now out of the question, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if the lights all went out, or the trains stopped running.
Well, the New Year came and went without a hitch; we witnessed a brilliant fireworks display and all ended well. I have, however, resolved not to do that again when the next millennium comes! Next time I’ll go to the watchnight meeting, thank you.
Thanks to those same computers that didn’t fail us, I have in front of me reports from around the territory on the impact of welfare reform on Army programs and services, one of which compares welfare reform to the Y2K bug. Like Y2K, welfare reform happened without apparent catastrophe. But unlike Y2K, welfare reform includes a series of deadlines, many of which are still ahead of us. The reports from around the territory reflect a cautious optimism, and a lot of concerns.
We have not seen the increases in the number of people we serve that many of us expected. A small number of units are serving more, but for the territory as a whole, statistics are flat or even down. Some say their statistics are flat because we cannot take care of any more people than we are now; others report they are working harder with smaller numbers.
The common thread in all of the reports is that we are now, more than ever, serving the “working poor.” Families earning their own way is surely an improvement over their remaining dependent on public welfare, but these families have critical needs that must be addressed if they are to be successful.
It is encouraging to hear the extent to which we are responding to those needs, with efforts as simple as providing regular supplementary groceries, or as complex as building and operating affordable housing. We are adding infant, pre-school and school-age childcare. We are opening medical clinics to serve those who have lost eligibility for Medicaid, but who are not covered by employer-paid medical care. We are working with unemployed and under-employed to help overcome barriers to employment and improve their earning capacity. We are also learning to work with other service providers and churches in innovative and collaborative efforts.
What we are doing is just what a report from the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says we should be doing: providing support to low-income families making the very hard journey from welfare to independence. This excellent report entitled, “Windows of Opportunity” is available on the Internet at www.cbpp.org. It strongly challenges the states to use some of their accumulating resources to invest in these families and try to ensure their success. We, in turn, must partner with the states to make this happen.
These are efforts that are in line with our territorial vision: to assess the real needs of people and to work with others to see these needs met. When we really understand the circumstances of people’s lives, we become available to them in ways not possible when we just give “service as usual.” If we want to touch the spiritual dimensions in the lives of those we serve, we have to start where they are, with the issues concerning them, and move at their pace.
When it comes to welfare reform, we’re still standing on the bridge, uncertain of just what the future will hold. But we still have time and space to maneuver, and we can impact the outcome. Nobody seems to know for sure whether the Y2K threat was overblown, or we did a fantastic job of preparing for and avoiding the worst. We know what is needed if welfare reform is to succeed. We can be part of making it work, and pursuing our vision in the process. God bless those of you who are making the vision a reality!