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Welfare Reform: A Doorway to Lives

by Gordon Bingham –
Territorial Social Services Secretary

In his book, Bread for My Neighbor, the late General Frederick Coutts examines the impact of William Booth’s Darkest England scheme, published in 1891, on social welfare in Great Britain at the close of the 19th century. He points out that Booth’s life covered roughly the period between England’s so called Poor Law Reform of 1834 (does that sound familiar?) and the ending of that era in 1911 with the passage of the National Insurance Act. Of the latter, a 32- year-old Winston Churchill would say that a line should be drawn, “below which we will not allow persons to live and labour.” It would be 24 years before the United States would pass comparable legislation in the Social Security Act of 1935.

Our “welfare reform” of 1996 echoes many of the same concerns and arguments that led to the poor law reform of 1834. It is by no means so harsh. It was the 1834 law that led to the notoriously dreadful poor houses of Booth’s day as the only alternative available to individuals and families who could not support themselves. Putting the best face on it, our welfare reform presents a “tough love” approach to change, but ultimately also holds out the threat of pain, i.e. the loss of benefits, as a major means of prompting profound behavioral changes.

In several places in Bread for My Neighbor, Coutts looks at the tensions between the London Charity Organization Society — the “experts” at the turn of the century in how people should or should not be helped — and The Salvation Army of Booth’s day. The Charity Organization Society thinking echoed the “Social Darwinism” popular in their day: the laws of the free market economy would reward the hard-working and good people, just as they would crush the weak.

Booth argued that far too little was being done to make change possible for people. Of the Charity Organization Society approach he wrote:

“Most schemes that are put forward for the improvement of the people…would only affect the aristocracy of the miserable. It is the thrifty, the industrious, the sober, the thoughtful who can take advantage of these plans… No one will ever make a visible dent on the mass of squalor who does not deal with the improvident, the lazy, the vicious, the criminal. The scheme of social salvation is not worth discussing which is not as wide as the scheme of eternal salvation. The Charity Organization Society believes in the survival of the fit… We believe in the survival of the unfit.”

The initial reports in the media of the impact of Welfare Reform one year after passage have been quite positive. Caseloads are down. People are leaving welfare to go to work. Others are not bothering to apply. It isn’t clear in every instance why caseloads are declining, but it appears the appropriate message is getting out: welfare is not an acceptable alternative to self-support and personal responsibility. No one would argue with that being a very necessary shift.

This initial success was probably predictable: those most ready, most motivated to move on with their lives are doing so. It will get a lot harder as the reforms impact the second and third levels of families on welfare: the less motivated, poorly educated and unskilled. A recent survey in Minnesota reported:

“Between two and three workers compete for every low-skill job opening in Minnesota, despite the lowest level of unemployment in more than 20 years… In some areas… the job gap between job seekers and job openings is even greater, with as many as six job seekers for every low-skill job opening. The study also finds that there are more than 100,000 unemployed workers and adult welfare recipients in Minnesota who are qualified only for low-skill work.”

We have been anxious over the last year about getting a place at the table as contracts are let out for getting people back to work. We have some fear about being left out. The truth is, the work has only begun. The objectives of welfare reform will be many years in coming to fruition if they ever do. Along the way, we need to set about doing what we can to secure the “survival of the unfit,” the folks, already known to us, who have a very difficult journey ahead of them.

As was being said of AIDS over a decade ago, welfare reform might be characterized as a “lens” that brings into focus a wide range of human needs and issues: meaning, community, personal value, behaviors, attitudes, growth and change. Welfare reform gives us a doorway to enter people’s lives in new ways. Welfare reform calls people to a journey of change. Along that journey they will need people to walk alongside them; to provide caring, community, and perhaps above all, spiritual resources to cope and transform. This is a tremendous challenge to us for holistic ministry. We must find ways to respond.

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