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WELFARE REFORM : Mississippi Experiment Puts Faith in Religious Groups

August 29, 1995|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JACKSON, Miss. — As the nation grapples with welfare reform, the state of Mississippi is attracting attention with an experiment that unabashedly aims to turn back the clock to a time that precedes welfare itself.

Skirting the edge of the constitutional separation of church and state, the Administration of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice has been recruiting religious bodies to adopt poor families and help get them off government assistance.

Officials insist that the program is not an attempt to push welfare off on churches. Nevertheless, they tout the 10-month-old effort as a way of easing the burden on government and a potential solution to the seemingly intractable problem of poverty.

Faith in Families, as the program is called, is part of a growing national movement that touts private charities over government aid to the needy. The movement, which is championed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), has been influenced by a 1992 book, "The Tragedy of American Compassion," by Marvin Olasky. The book argues that charities and voluntary associations, many of them church-based, are more effective than government in helping the poor and instilling a sense of personal responsibility.

In Mississippi, however, Faith in Families has started slowly, in part because of its minuscule staff but also because both churches and welfare recipients are wary of it. Critics denounce the program as nothing more than an election-year political stunt that is doomed to failure.

Even so, Mississippi officials have been swamped with inquiries from other states. "We've heard from every state but Alaska," said Margaret Luckett, who is in charge of the program. "We've had overwhelming response."

In a nutshell, the program links poor families with churches, synagogues and mosques that have volunteered to help. The congregation's members, through their community contacts, help find jobs for welfare recipients after first training them in such basics as how to prepare a resume, dress for an interview and retain a job. Volunteers also help with transportation, child care or other problems and attempt to attend, without proselytizing, to the clients' "spiritual needs," the program's administrators said.

The Rev. R.K. Moore, pastor of a Baptist church in Jackson and field coordinator of the program, said such intensive effort and personal attention are beyond the scope of government. Echoing sentiments heard with increasing frequency in the nation's statehouses and in Washington, he faulted government for fostering dependency.

"Some individuals don't want to just be given a place to stay," he said. "They don't want you to give them a subsistence allowance every month. They want a job."

Officials insist that the program does not blur the separation between government and religion. All the people involved are aware that they are walking a fine line and are careful never to endorse a religion or to suggest to recipients that they attend church, Luckett said.

"We're not teaching a particular religion but letting individuals know that there is a value in their life . . . that it's all right to be down, but the question has to be asked: 'When do I want to get up?' " Moore said.

Moore said none of the recipients helped by his church have been asked to attend worship services but that all have chosen to attend.

Criticism of the program has centered not so much on the constitutional issue as on Fordice's sincerity and on whether it is realistic to expect a volunteer program to have much impact.

Shortly after the program was announced, state NAACP Director Beatrice Branch dismissed it as a joke. Other African American leaders also criticized the Fordice Administration for not providing enough funding and resources. Until an adviser and administrative assistant were recently added, Luckett and Moore virtually ran the statewide effort.

State Rep. Ed Blackman, chairman of the legislative black caucus, praised Moore's "extraordinary commitment" but predicted Faith in Families "will result in nothing."

"It will vanish from the scene very quickly, but probably not before this year's elections," Blackman said. Fordice is running for reelection.

There are 5,500 churches in Mississippi and 59,343 families on welfare. So far, about 55 families have volunteered for Faith in Families and 165 churches are actively involved--up from about 30 two months ago. Luckett and Moore said they have been slow in getting the word out about the program but added that churches are starting to show more interest.

The Rev. Keith Tonkel offered another possible explanation for low church involvement. He is pastor of Welles Church, which has many charitable activities in Jackson. "A lot of churches are really slow to get involved with anything that has a particular political component" and bureaucratic hassle can also be a roadblock, he said.

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