Thy Neighbor's Keeper

Can private charities replace tax-funded welfare? A program in one Maryland county suggests the challenges facing church-based efforts to help welfae mothers become self-sufficient.


Ed Kirk says he's the kind of person that doesn't believe in failure." A retired Bell Atlantic executive, Kirk lives in a Maryland suburb and has worshiped at Our Lady of the Fields Catholic Church for 20 years. Two years ago, he and his wife, Elaine, helped Jane, a 32-year-old single mom, get off welfare. (The names of former and current welfare recipients have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Every day for four months, Kirk rose before 7 a.m., picked up Jane and her toddler, dropped the boy off at the babysitter, and drove Jane to work. She did a lot of temping, and sometimes jobs were 30 or 40 miles away. During the long drives, he'd cheer and cajole.

"I was always talking to her positively, telling her she could get off welfare," Kirk says. He wouldn't let her dwell on the negative, tolerated no excuses for not working to resolve her problems, and encouraged her to focus on the future. After a 14-month roller coaster ride of hirings and firings, health problems, suspicious drug activity, eviction, and family reconciliation, Jane has finally settled into a full-time clerical job with medical benefits in Washington, D.C., and has her own apartment. Kirk says it's a success story but admits "it had a lot of bruises along the way."

Kirk's church is one of two dozen congregations in Maryland's Anne Arundel County that participate in the Community-Directed Assistance Program, or C-DAP. Launched in June 1994, the program links welfare recipients with small support teams of church volunteers. The church receives one year's worth of the recipient's AFDC benefits in a lump sum, and the volunteers and recipient work together for six months to tackle the obstacles to economic self-sufficiency and find stable, permanent employment. Since its inception, 21 welfare recipients have enrolled in C-DAP and 14 have not returned to the state's welfare rolls. Though small-scale, C-DAP is the most creative and thoughtfully constructed partnership between the religious community and local government I've seen while researching such initiatives in several states on the cutting edge of welfare reform. And soon more welfare recipients may be able to join something like C-DAP: Officials from Maryland's Frederick County and Washington County have invited C-DAP manager Remy Agee to teach them how to replicate the program.

Agee, an employee of Anne Arundel County's Department of Social Services, is quick to say that "C-DAP isn't for everyone." Because of its emphasis on work, pregnant welfare recipients or those with small children won't join. Recipients with drug problems are screened out, and recipients who want further schooling typically reject the offer to enroll in C-DAP. Furthermore, it appears that only churches are willing to make the long-term volunteer investment required of C-DAP mentors. Agee originally thought that service organizations, such as the Kiwanis or Rotary clubs, might be willing to help, but they turned her down. "They weren't willing to work as labor-intensively with a family for six months or more," she says.

While C-DAP is succeeding in helping recipients achieve independence from the dole, my study of 13 program participants shows the enormous difficulties of obtaining true self-sufficiency. "We and the public are learning," Agee reports, "that there are multiple issues for almost every family that is eligible for assistance. Most of the [C-DAP] participants have spiraled downward pretty far. They've exhausted their own resources and those of their families and friends." The relatively small number of C-DAP's success stories could lead one to question the initiative's value. Critics of welfare reform might argue that C-DAP's record proves that the challenge of moving needy families from dependence to self-sufficiency is just too great for private citizens; that only government with its large resources can handle it. In reality, though, the contrary is true. C-DAP provides a vivid and sobering reminder of why welfare reform was necessary. While the Maryland experiment counsels against an easy optimism about fixing the "underclass problem," it also demonstrates an innovative welfare-to-work approach that other states should consider imitating.

With the devolution of welfare from Washington to the states, and from the states to civil society, governmental entities are stepping up their efforts to collaborate with private social service organizations, particularly churches and religious nonprofit groups. Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice's Faith and Families program aims to match every welfare family with a congregation that can help it achieve economic self-sufficiency. Gov. George Allen of Virginia has sponsored several regional conferences bringing together state bureaucrats, community nonprofits, and religious leaders to forge new alliances and facilitate welfare-to-work mentoring programs and new child care and job training initiatives. Govs. John Engler of Michigan and Parris Glendening of Maryland are taking similar steps.

Public partnerships with religious social service agencies aren't exactly novel. Stephen Monsma's recent study, When Sacred and Secular Mix, discusses hundreds of examples of cooperation between government and religious groups. Organizations like Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army make a huge impact serving the poor and receive considerable public funding. But the climate is new in two respects. First, the "charitable choice" provisions in the federal welfare reform law give religious social service groups that accept government funds explicit protections that enable them to carry out their work without compromising their unique religious identity and mission. Such protections make it more likely that evangelical Christian groups already fighting poverty will be able to expand their activities by accepting state money. Second, most previous collaboration was with religious nonprofits, not individual congregations. Aggressive attempts to stir churches to greater activity may provide a twofold blessing. They can harness previously untapped human and financial resources, and they can encourage a reformation of church benevolence: away from traditional, "commodity-based" outreach that gave poor people band-aids of money, food, and clothing, and toward "relationally based" service that addresses the root causes of persistent poverty and encourages permanent change.

The C-DAP model is a good one for churches and policy makers to consider for several reasons. First, it illustrates the ground-floor-up involvement critical to fruitful public-private collaboration. Agee, the C-DAP manager, held focus groups with business owners, community representatives, churches, and welfare recipients to shape a program that would address both the structural and the moral-cultural factors contributing to welfare dependence while drawing on the enormous human resources available in the religious community. Welfare recipients like Wanda, a 24-year-old mother of two, said they wanted more personalized assistance; they were "sick of being treated as faceless numbers by the [social services] bureaucracy." Businesses said they'd hire poor people if they had good attitudes and a personal support system to help them cope with the challenges of day care, transportation, and budgeting. Churches said they'd administer funds, teach money management, and provide caring volunteers–as long as they weren't matched with drug addicts and the county didn't smother them in red tape.

Agee and her colleagues listened, and created C-DAP from the grassroots up, rather than from the bureaucracy down. Too often, she admits, bureaucrats don't understand what's going on out in the community because they're not in field. "Every time we came back from a [focus group]," she says, "we changed the program, modifying it on the basis of that feedback."

Rather than issuing a vague plea for the churches to "adopt" welfare recipients, C-DAP personnel clearly define the program's expectations. Churches and C-DAP participants sign written agreements specifying the responsibilities of each. For example, churches are not to be approached for financial aid, and participants are the ones responsible for seeking employment. The volunteers' role is to "do with" the clients, not to "do for" them. Budget counseling is an important focus: Volunteers and C-DAP participants agree to develop a responsible spending plan immediately. The average participant, with three kids, gets a $4,200 allowance over six months (in addition to food stamps and other noncash subsidies).

Ed Kirk and other church volunteers report that most participants "needed a lot of education" when it came to finances. "Some of the young mothers we've worked with didn't realize they were spending 50 percent more than their income," comments a Methodist volunteer. He showed one participant how her two phone lines, call waiting service, and deluxe cable TV package added a hefty burden to her monthly bills. Kirk remembers taking Jane to the dry cleaner: "Cripes! She dropped off pleated skirts, and it just about depleted her money for the whole week!" Initially, C-DAP participant Tierra says she disliked the influence the team had over the use of her money. "But I wasn't doing so great a job," she admits. "I needed the help with budgeting."

Prior to the federal welfare reforms passed last fall, C-DAP was financially front-loaded: The church had 12 months' worth of funds to spend in six months. This made it possible for volunteers to tackle large, immediate barriers to employment. With cash in hand, they could obtain expensive car repairs and so enable participants to get to work; pay off debts that weighed participants down; or get recipients' telephone service restored so they could make and receive calls about jobs. Under the new welfare rules, C-DAP participants will receive only six months' worth of cash assistance for the six-month period.

Sponsoring churches may be willing to contribute their own money if C-DAP officials let them. This isn't a pipe dream: Churches involved in northern Virginia's Project HOMES pay the security deposits and first month's rent for the homeless families they mentor, and congregations participating in the Tidewater area's Partners in Hope project do the same for the battered women they assist. In Mississippi, churches participating in Faith and Families have given their "adoptees" grants of up to $1,500.

Another key to C-DAP's effectiveness is that it employs a team approach rather than one-to-one mentoring. This cuts down on volunteer burnout, increases the participants' network of contacts, and allows volunteers to find their own niche. In the cases I studied, usually one team member took on the role of day care shopper, taking the participant around to different centers and babysitters to find an affordable, convenient option. Others listened for job openings and coached participants on their interview skills, another helped with transportation, and another provided budget counseling.

C-DAP also supports volunteers by hosting occasional meetings where teams from different churches gather to swap stories and learn from each other's experiences. "That was extremely useful," says one volunteer. "In hearing from the other church volunteers, I realized we were too soft with our participant. You don't want to pry. All the volunteers felt that. But then you realize that that's what you have to do." A man from a Catholic church added that while his team had "tried to develop a good rapport" with the participant through friendly, supportive conversation, sometimes it was necessary, though uncomfortable, to probe and "root out the problems," such as misplaced spending priorities or a disinclination to save. Knowing that other volunteers were doing this, and finding it effective, reassured him.

Finally, C-DAP personnel were prepared to play the heavy if a participant was not fulfilling her end of the bargain. Remy Agee would meet with her, review the original contract, discuss areas for improvement, and add specific action items to the agreement that the participant needed to complete by a deadline. "I'd tell them that this is a voluntary program and you don't have to be in it," Agee says. "But if you're going to be in it, then you've signed an agreement and you need to keep it."

According to C-DAP statistics, church volunteers spend an average of 400 hours with their participants over a six-month period. Some of the teams from the seven churches I surveyed had put in considerably more time–over 500 hours. "To get people back on their feet," Ed Kirk explains, "it's not just about getting a job. It's about getting all their problems solved." And Jane had a lot of problems. Her license had been revoked because of unpaid traffic fines. An acquaintance borrowed her car and wrecked it. She lived in an area not served by public transportation. The father of her son provided no assistance, and her family had written her off years before, when she'd gotten hooked on drugs.

"She owed money on her car loan," Kirk says. "She owed money to a hospital. She owed back state and federal taxes. Cripes! If they don't resolve each one of these problems, they're no better off than they were the day you met them." Most of these problems had to be handled during normal business hours, when Jane was working. So Kirk met with the bureaucrats, called the creditors, and drove to Washington to meet with the IRS, while his wife, Elaine, took Jane's toddler to the doctor if he got sick at the babysitter's. "It was a full-time job," Kirk says.

That reality points to the necessity for struggling individuals to re-affiliate with their families and seek aid from diverse sources. Recognizing the significant challenges Jane faced, Kirk encouraged her to contact her relatives and to begin attending a church near her home. Members of that church ended up providing a lot of free babysitting and transportation, thus easing the burden on the Kirks. To get her driver's license reinstated, Jane needed to pay traffic fines. So Kirk suggested that Jane call her father and explain that she was trying to make a fresh start in life. Her father paid half of the fines, while Jane used C-DAP funds for the other half. After some refresher driving lessons from Ed–and Jane's receipt of a donated used car through the county Department of Social Services–she was mobile once again. Several months after the Kirks began working with Jane, Jane's brother and sister-in-law also stepped forward and offered assistance.

Agee says this pattern is common. When weary family members see that their needy relative is receiving crucial emotional and personal support, they become more willing to help. They seem to have greater confidence that perhaps this time real change will occur.

Jane's bumpy ride to independence from welfare demonstrates clearly why reform was necessary. After all, if it's tough for a group of diligent, dedicated volunteers putting in many hours to help a person exit welfare, it's virtually impossible for a government caseworker, who doesn't have one-tenth the time, to help a client
do so. "With their high caseload, [case]workers can provide only limited support," Agee observes. In my own county, according to Bryan Betts, management analyst for the Albemarle County, Virginia, Department of Social Services, a caseworker typically juggles 19 cases each month. County statistics indicate that caseworkers spend, on average, 6.5 hours a month on each case. The six-month total, then, is 39 hours dedicated to one welfare recipient–versus the 400 to 500 hours logged by the C-DAP volunteer teams.

And it's not just the quantity of time that is important. The quality of the relationship matters too. C-DAP participants said personal support made a huge difference. Last Mother's Day, Jane called Elaine Kirk and thanked her for "being like a mom." She also said that if Ed hadn't picked her up every day in those first few months, she would have skipped work. But she knew she had to get up and keep trying because he and Elaine were working so hard to help her. Now, many months later, Jane and the Kirks still keep in touch. "We'll never forget her," Elaine says, "and she says she'll never forget us."

Tierra, a stocky, feisty 37-year-old mother of three who's now in a manager-trainee program at a dry cleaning store, said she appreciated her team's "tough love." Somewhat unexpectedly, she reports, she clicked best with the volunteer who pushed her the hardest. "She was straight up, and I liked that," Tierra says with a smile. She confesses that she used to have a bad attitude that got in her way. I ask her what it takes to change someone's attitude. "Another person caring," she declares. "These are volunteers doing this. It's not a job. They care about you."

Some of the participants initially expressed concern that the team members might pressure them to join their church, but these fears never materialized. C-DAP staff told the churches that their involvement was not an opportunity for proselytizing. They really didn't have to, since church members saw their participation as community service, not missionary work. They invited participants to social events at the church, but, in the words of a Lutheran volunteer, "we did not press religion on our participant." Nearly all the volunteers were quiet about their faith, witnessing through deeds more than with words.

They didn't put their values on the shelf, however. They expressed frustration when participants "didn't appreciate the urgency of getting to work on time or straightening out [their] finances," as volunteer Glenn Parker puts it. They expected participants to make meetings with them, keep job interview appointments, and stick to their budgets. Volunteers encouraged thrift, punctuality, showing respect on the job, sexual restraint, and personal responsibility. In short, they were willing to challenge self-destructive behavior or attitudes that hindered participants' progress. This was something the old welfare system rarely did, and really could not do very well, since it is best done in the context of a personal relationship of care, candor, and trust. C-DAP put welfare recipients into such friendships with caring individuals, who also took time to impart basic life skills–time management, keeping a checkbook, budgeting, smart shopping–essential to achieving and maintaining independence from public assistance.

C-DAP has many strengths. There's no bureaucratic inertia: The county's social services staff have modified the program as they've heard constructive criticism from front-line volunteers. Red tape is minimal. The volunteers often go beyond the call of duty. Taxpayers' money is spent carefully, in conjunction with a strategic plan for gaining stable, full-time employment. Welfare recipients are encouraged, treated with dignity, and given attentive, individually tailored assistance. Several have made remarkable progress in the face of overwhelming obstacles. As noted earlier, two-thirds of the C-DAP participants are now off the dole.

Still, if the real goal is genuine economic self-sufficiency rather than independence from cash aid, the statistics are a bit more sobering. By this criterion, only four of the 13 cases I examined were clear successes. Four others were clear failures and five were mixed. Such numbers force us to accept that even a good program–and C-DAP is very well conceived and managed–is no panacea. Ultimately, the individual recipient holds the key to success. As one volunteer put it, "All we can do is try to steer these people. If they don't really want to go, you can't force them." And some who do want to go lack the education, marketable skills, or reliable transportation needed to secure jobs with salaries that support two or three kids. Those with a good attitude and solid work ethic can move up over time, but without adequate transitional assistance such as day care subsidies and food stamps, they probably won't make it.

Fortunately, under the new welfare reforms many recipients will receive day care subsidies and medical assistance even after they are no longer eligible for cash aid. These measures address the "cliff effect" problem many C-DAP participants have encountered in the past. "We were really angry that as soon as [Donna] got a job, her rent went from $25 to $425 a month and she lost most of her food stamps," complained church volunteer Kathy McFadden. A Methodist volunteer agreed: "The clients need at least six months of earning a salary before they can even begin to take on some of the expenses that they're going to have to take on. The medical and day care assistance should continue for at least a year. We can't just cut them off and say, `OK, now you're working, so you're no longer eligible for help.' They're not really self-sufficient yet."

Remy Agee enthusiastically reports that nine new churches are "ready and waiting" to be matched with C-DAP participants. Concurrent with the growing enthusiasm for C-DAP, though, is a disturbing rumbling in a segment of Maryland's religious community. A coalition claiming to represent 250 congregations recently met with Governor Glendening and told him they would not participate in "dehumanizing" welfare reforms, complaining that the government was abdicating its responsibilities and "dumping" the poor on the churches.

Agee says she's not really worried about this development, because she believes the coalition mainly opposes the state's "third party payee" idea. This proposal tries to address what happens when a parent is kicked off the welfare rolls because of noncompliance with the new rules, such as work requirements. To ensure that such children continue to receive the aid they need, the state wants churches to administer the kids' cash aid and food stamps. Agee says that program is distinct from the C-DAP initiative, so the coalition's activities won't hamper C-DAP's growth.

Religious leaders in other states have also been critical of welfare reform, but this need not hinder a new engagement of churches in this era of welfare devolution. While the denominational headquarters may be crying foul, many average pew sitters are not. John Wells, director of a network of mainline churches in Virginia called Community Ministries, reports that what he hears from local pastors contradicts the official messages articulated by denominational leaders. "The Spirit is not very alive in many of our churches, and the preachers know it," he says candidly. "They are hungry for opportunities to put in front of their members opportunities to get personally involved in ministry." Wells criticizes national religious leaders whose emphasis on mobilizing parishioners in partisan lobbying efforts distracts the laity from a humble, hands-on service that can deepen their faith.

The Washington Post reported on the Maryland coalition's stormy meeting with Glendening just a few days before I interviewed Dot and Annette, C-DAP volunteers from the Severna Park United Methodist Church. They were exasperated by the coalition's attitude. Rather than disavowing its duty, they argued, the church should be stepping up its efforts. "We've been critical of welfare before because it didn't seem to be helping people," says Dot. Now that it's changed, she reasons, "we've got to put our actions where our mouths are."

Amy L. Sherman, director of urban ministry at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, is author of Restorers of Hope: Reaching the Poor in Your Community with Church-Based Programs that Work, forthcoming from Crossway Books.