The jury is still out on the welfare reform law of 1996. Government officials boast about how many people have been taken off welfare rolls, but the welfare rolls had been diminishing before the act went into effect. In fact, between January 1993 and March 1998, welfare rolls decreased by 37 percent—a statistic that does not tell the whole story. It does not say how many of those moved off the welfare rolls have gotten living-wage employment that can be sustained over time. (One study done in New York City predicts that it will take 21 years to absorb all of their adult welfare recipients into that job market. Yet, the new law puts a five-year limit on welfare benefits.)
In the short term, charities that provide the most basic human needs—homeless shelters, rescue missions, food pantries—see worrisome trends. Catholic Charities reported a 26 percent increase in requests for emergency food relief in the first half of 1998. According to Bread for the World, "one in eight families in the United States is still on the edge of hunger … partly because Congress has slashed vital food and nutrition programs. Hardest hit are … infants, women and the elderly." This in a robust economy. What is to happen when, not if, the next recession hits?
Whereas society as a whole has a responsibility toward the least among us—and therefore government has a role to play—the church too needs to step up to the challenge (see "After the Revolution," CT, Dec. 7, 1998, p. 50). There is an opportunity staring churches and other faith-based organizations in the face. That is the charitable choice provision of the welfare reform law that makes it possible for charities, churches, and other faith-based organizations ...1