Jesus is not the Answer

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It’s interesting how one slip of the tongue can fuel an outsized reaction. Because many people are reading the appointments of the Trump administration to mean leadership is being selected with the implicit agreement that their role will be to either downsize or even eliminate the work of those departments (like Betsy DeVos in Education and Rick Perry in Energy), it was no surprise that Mick Mulvaney’s slip that funding for Meals on Wheels through the Community Development Block Program may not be justified sent tremors through the nonprofit world.  It did not matter that he confused things by not making it clear that most of the funding for the 5,000 Meals on Wheels organizations around the country does not come through the CDBG but through another HUD agency altogether along with private donations. However, that and a very good article by Emma Green in The Atlantic titled “Can Religious Charities Take the Place of the Welfare State?” has only shifted the conversations about shrinking major government programs to a different level of anxiety.

Green’s article explores the question of whether or not religious organizations like churches and faith-based nonprofits are capable of sustaining programs that have been historically initiated and funded by government. While I agree with all of the sources quoted in the article that it would be impossible to imagine social programs currently run by State and Federal agencies being delegated to churches and nonprofits and all of their reasons for making their case, it sometimes helps me to look at a specific example in my own community. You may want to do the same with any one of hundreds of government funded programs.

I took one of the safety net programs that provide aid to individuals and families facing hardship – specifically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that replaced the Food Stamp program. With a $75 billion budget and more than 40 million people enrolled, it provides vouchers for food purchases by families living below the poverty level.  What would it mean to turn that program over to churches and nonprofits funded by private foundations and individuals?  In fact, what would the impact be on the community where I live – Smith County, Texas?  I decided to run some numbers and see.

In a community of 216,000 people we have 29,000 individuals enrolled in the SNAP program. Currently, SNAP provides vouchers worth $3.1 million monthly to these families to make purchases at local grocers. That is more than $37 million in vouchers providing 15 million meals annually. Out of 400 local nonprofits a handful of those (and some churches) are providing groceries and meals not paid for with vouchers. However, according to the director of our local food bank, if SNAP were eliminated and those vouchers and meals were to be replaced by private charity, the numbers would be significantly increased for everyone. For instance, if each of our county’s 343 churches (it’s the South so we have more churches) were to add the expense of vouchers to their budgets they would need to raise an average additional $9,000 every month to pay for them. Organizations now providing prepared meals – like churches and shelters – would each need to multiply their meals per month five or six times to absorb the number of people they would be serving. All of this $37 million annually would have to be funded by private donors in addition to the other organizations they are currently supporting.

But it is not just the numbers. I think many people considering these changes still have an image of church and the services they provide to the poor that is shaped by what the local church used to be. They picture an urban congregation led by a kindly priest and overworked nuns taking care of the flood of immigrants and those displaced by waves of migration or economic upheavals. People found in the neighborhood churches a relief from the harsh realities of their lives and the church served as the very center of these communities – many of them created by immigrant ethnic groups like the Irish, Italian and Polish – who brought with them strong religious identities and commitment to the institution of the local church.  It fed, healed, educated, taught literacy and encouraged tight networks of relationships. A church like that did, in fact, provide many of the same services for their people the government does. It’s easy to see why some think the church can do that again. But, this is a new day and the average church in America is not prepared for what it would mean to take care of the poor in the same way they might have in the past. They don’t have the competencies even if they had the capacity. As Ryan Dowd at Hesed House in Illinois said, “Churches do some programs exceptionally well. Other programs the church is not good at. To take the all or nothing approach is to miss the gifts – and limitations – of the church.”

The world has changed and there is no going back to what used to be in this country. So, unless the government mandates a change like making nonprofit status dependent on their taking on these social services, I don’t see religious charities and churches taking the place of the welfare state.

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Showing 13 comments
  • Steve French
    Reply

    I agree. But I think there are changes in both government and the church which would be beneficial. The issue with the government welfare state is not so much the cost of the financial provision or the need for an organized approach (bureaucracy) though these both need to be constantly evaluated for efficiency and effectiveness. The issue is the degree to which people become addicted to this provision and how this has now jumped generations. This is where the church comes in. As believers we know the root of much poverty is spiritual in nature. We can love people in that situation and help them uproot that spirit. When Jesus said “feed my sheep” I don’t think He was talking about food. What if government and the church could work together in this regard?

  • Sybil Walker
    Reply

    It does seem the local church should meet most of the needs of its own members. I don’t see where God has relieved us of this command.

    • Sybil Walker
      Reply

      It does seem the local church should meet most of the needs of its own members. I don’t see where God has relieved us of this command.

      I agree the best partnerships may be between faith-based organizations and government. I don’t think it should be at the federal level in that it is not very effective at meeting local needs.

  • Fred Smith
    Reply

    I agree that changes are needed. I also agree that benefits become entitlements and those become rights. Os Guinness has written about this in “The Global Public Square” far better than I could. He says that when “rights” proliferate then they are all devalued. In the early Church poverty was not seen as a stigma. Actually, poverty was almost a sign of blessing. Obviously, that has changed. However, we have moved so far away from the inclusion of the poor that they have become a problem to be fixed – and we become angry when they are not fixed. I would love to see government and the church work together in appropriate ways. In fact, they do. Fully 65% of the budget for Catholic Charities comes from government. Even Samaritan’s Purse receives 12% of its budget from government funding. So, they are in some sense already working together. The issue will be when government wants to turn over everything to religious charities and take away their funding.

  • Connie Hudson
    Reply

    In the US, the percentage of people considered to be in proverty seems to change very little regardless of the amount of food, shelter, clothes, and money allotted for relief. Thus, it appears that addressing the symptoms of proverty does very little toward ending proverty and may to some degree promote proverty. Often it is used as a political tool. Solving proverty requires attitude change, not more relief or more money.

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thanks, Connie. We are never going to solve poverty, are we? We’ve made tremendous progress but for any number of reasons the successes do not make the news. So many people have vested interests in negative reports. It’s a complicated topic and I only had a few words to give to it. I will say the response has been unusual!

  • Barry Clark
    Reply

    Fred,

    Your article ignores the simple fact that the state forces taxpayer participation by gunpoint (literally) to pay for the program. SNAP recipients have zero responsibility to the giver (taxpayers). This creates a horrible system of unwilling givers and mostly ungrateful recipients. You’ve set up a straw man by accepting current SNAP funding levels as a standard the church can’t meet. Without SNAP taxpayers and church members would have the option and the money to determine who is truly in need and can use their resources much more efficiently. Here are a few examples of items available for purchase under SNAP… Ice, bottled water, Twinkies, Red Bull, Cheetos, Snickers, Ice Cream, Lobster and Monster Energy Drink. Churches don’t have the expertise or resources to administer a program like SNAP because the taxpayer is so burdened with funding wasteful government programs. The societal problems that government entitlements create are far worse than the “benefits” they provide. When a person in need is reliant on another human for help a beautiful picture of healthy relationship is created where both can fulfill God’s will in their lives.

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Barry. Yes, the blog is oversimplified. I only have a few hundred words and it is a complex subject. I would have loved to dig into how churches and religious organizations would redesign and administrate the whole process were it to be privatized. Obviously, there would need to be some additional structure added but would it be as burdensome as what is there now? Would it be more efficient necessarily? I suppose that depends on how we answer the question of how “efficient” churches and religious organizations are now without the additional responsibility of a major social service to run. You are right that my assumption (for simplicity) was the numbers would not change and the non-profits would have to make up the difference without changing the dollars. That’s not necessary and you are right to point that out. Those numbers could change. I’m not an expert in what foods are available and that’s probably not the main issue. Still, it would be interesting to lay out a scenario in which the church is actually in charge and the members and leadership of those churches could make the funding and follow-up decisions. I wonder what that would look like given the differences in the way churches do everything as it is. Could they come up with a master plan for a community? Would they pool their funding to support a non-profit like Salvation Army to do it? Thanks for helping me think.

  • Gail McGlothin
    Reply

    When I first read your intriguing Blog title Jesus is not the Answer, my first thought was “What is the question?” The plight of people living in poverty has become extraordinarily complex. Contradictory guidelines are often barriers to people moving from poverty to living independent of government assistance. My prayer is that wise and compassionate people grasp the thread of possibility and pull until all people in the US have the opportunity, encouragement, and support needed to achieve a better standard of living. People of faith, individually and in their houses of worship, can work serving the poor with direct service and with advocacy to our political leaders.

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Gail. I like that word opportunity! That is often what is missing, isn’t it? As well, you are right about the complexity – just in our own city.

  • Clayton Wood
    Reply

    Dear Fred,

    I would disagree quite strongly. I would recommend for further reading,
    When Helping Hurts by Fikkert and Corbett (even though they seem to sometimes ignore the domestic implications and focus on the international), Toxic Charity by Bob Lupton, Please Stop Helping Us by Jason Riley and especially The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky.

    More important than all of those is studying the life and work of Thomas Chalmers. He married the roles of elders and deacons of providing love and accountability with support for those in the body. It changed poverty radically in the cities where he worked.

    Also examine what happened in Wisconsin when Thompson reformed welfare. People ignore the stats social science give us. Not only did no one starve, people got jobs, and fatherlessness declined.

    I pastor an inner city church and run an inner city ministry. We take no governmental funding. By every measurable stat we are providing better food and better care for kids for significantly less money than the government spends. How? We have volunteers, we have donations, we are extremely careful about our spending, we grow our food etc. Churches can operate effectively including in providing care in ways that make SNAP comparisons apples and oranges. Churches may not provide Coca Cola and Doritos for the poor, that would not be a bad thing and may actually decrease costs in another area, the preventable obesity that is rampant in SNAP users.

    We have over 50 years of War on Poverty data. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was right. Welfare is poison, and I feel like I am watching doctors prescribe Thalidomide for morning sickness after decades of birth defects. It is maddening.

    Jesus is the answer. The unsaved poor need salvation not a sandwhich. The saved poor (the majority of the church globally) understand that physical poverty is not the most important measure of poverty and are often blessed with spiritual, emotional and academic riches that are inspiring.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this important topic!

    • Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Clayton. Yes, those books and resources are good ones! I count Brian, Marvin and Bob as friends. As I have said to some others who have taken the time to respond to the blog, I did not have enough words in a blog format (about 800) to say what needs to be said in a deeper way. I think I was wanting to address the idea in the heads of many people that their local church (neighborhood, suburban, urban) is not what we all imagine it to be in our minds. Through CCDA, Leadership Foundation and a number of other relationships I am well aware of the great work that is being done by inner city churches. In fact, it’s actually surprising to other friends that “poor people” even attend church or have strong faith. They have economic and spiritual poverty in the same category. I do agree with all the above friends about the dangers of toxic charity – here and outside the country. I do believe poverty is not only an issue for the poor but for the rich. However, my concern is that some people would think they can “fix” poverty by handing it over to the church and be done with it. Maybe it’s worth another blog? I want you to know how much I appreciate your responding. I am heading to Philadelphia and Baltimore tomorrow to learn about all of this in those two places.

  • Marilyn Augur
    Reply

    Fred, this was a very interesting blog…thought provoking. Interesting how differently people view the problem. Like so many societal problems, this one has been increased by the government programs that may start with good intentions but work out to the disadvantage of taxpayers and recipients alike. While church programs are not perfect they are more nimble in changing the program when the outcomes are less than desirable. I often wonder when I see very successful programs like Prison Entrepreneurial Program why the government does not adopt the same approach. As always thank you for making us think more broadly and consider other opinions.

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