A Policy Statement of the North Carolina Council of Churches, January 1997
The biblical prophet Amos declared “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, conm1unity responsibility for the poor was built into community structure. Landowners were required to leave a portion of their crops in the field, and the poor and needy were entitled to glean fields for food God’s disapproval falls not on those who are poor, but on the kings, the unjust owners, and the oppressors: “God will defend the poorest, God will save the children of those in need and crush the oppressor God will free the poor man who calls on him, and those who need help. God will have pity on the poor and feeble, and save the lives of those in need” (Psalm 72).
In the New Testament, Jesus calls all people to personal responsibility. But it is clear from the response of the early Christian Church that there remained a strong sense of corporate responsibility for the poor. Paul’s letters tell of his collections from some of the early churches to benefit the poor in Jerusalem The Epistle of James notes that the worship God desires is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James I :27). And Jesus, in describing the Great Judgment, blessed those who had given food, water, clothing, and shelter to the needy (Matthew 25.31-46).
The Current Status
Changes implemented by welfare reform at the national level include:
- An end to Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a program which had provided cash support for very poor mothers and children. Federal money to assist families will now be received as a block grant, with the states only required to offer at least 75% of what they had been giving to families (North Carolina’s average AFDC grant had been only $242 per family per month.)
- Food Stamp cuts of $23 billion over six years. Able-bodied citizens between the ages of 18 and 50 will only be able to receive Food Stamps for three months out of any three year period, even if they are looking for work but are unable to find it
- Food Stamps, Supplemental Security Income (for the blind and disabled), AFDC, and other federal services no longer available to legal immigrants, even those who are employed and paying US taxes. Farmworkers especially will be affected.
- Funding cuts in the Summer Food Program and other child nutrition programs.
- Tightened restrictions on children’s eligibility for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits, which have enabled children to live at home rather than being institutionalized. These cuts are estimated to eliminate benefits for 300,000 children with physical and/or mental disabilities.
North Carolina has already begun the process of welfare reform through the implementation of the WorkFirst program by the Department of Human Resources. Its basic components are these.
Putting people to work
The emphasis has shifted to procuring employment. WorkFirst requires those on assistance to get a job–paid or unpaid–within 12 weeks of receiving cash assistance. They must work or be in short-term job training for at least 30 hours per week. The first phase of this requirement applies only to the 35,000 parents with school-aged children, two-parent families, and those who are already working 30 hours per week. Transitional support money for child care and health care benefits are provided
Recipients must sign a contract that details their plans for ending cash assistance. Refusal to sign results in loss of the cash benefit altogether. Parents must guarantee to send their children to school, to have them immunized, and to provide regular medical checkups. They must pledge to look for and accept work, to enroll in any necessary job training, and to carry out plans to move off assistance. Teen parents must agree to stay in school and live with their parents, unless the parents are verified to be abusive. If a woman has another child while receiving cash assistance, no further benefits are given for that child. After two consecutive years receiving assistance, the family is dropped from cash assistance and may reapply only after three more years-
Whereas before one could own virtually nothing in order to qualify for AFDC, now families are allowed to save up to $3,000 and own cars worth $5,000.
- Maintain the current levels of support (inadequate though they may be) and allocate the additional funding required for job training: child care, transportation, and other forms of aid for those attempting to enter the workforce.
- Design systems using block-granted funds (and replacing AFDC) that have at least these features:
Entitlement – The state should create an entitlement to basic cash supports.
Statewideness – The core of baseline services should be available in all counties, even as counties develop programs specific to their own needs. The state and counties together, with community input, should decide what these are.
Outcome assessment – We need carefully created measures of how programs are helping people and ways to adjust programs based on assessments of effectiveness.
Collaboration – New dialogues should begin at local levels among city and county leaders, employers, churches, chambers of commerce, and welfare recipients, to devise new programs based on the investment of the entire community in assisting the area’s neediest families.
- Expand affordable, accessible child care.
- Establish a universal health care system in North Carolina and the nation. Without such a system, some people who cannot pay health insurance premiums will stay out of the workforce in order to remain eligible for health benefits. Health care needs to be disassociated from employment, since one out of five jobs does not provide health benefits.
- Provide adequate employment opportunities. We support a minimum wage that lifts one beyond the poverty level, the earned income tax credit, measures which strengthen organized labor, and other similar fair labor policies that enhance the dignity of work. If the private sector does not provide enough living wage jobs, the government should create jobs similar to those created in the 1930’s and 1940’s that enhanced our country’s infrastructure.
- End welfare for corporations. If the reason behind welfare reform has been to save tax money, we have so far held accountable only the poor and turned a blind eye to corporate welfare and government support for the wealthy.
- Institute campaign finance reform. Until we have publicly financed elections, poor and working class people will not be able to have their concerns heard and heeded.