All Commentary
Saturday, October 1, 1994

Ending Welfare as They Knew It

How a New York City Church Encouraged Self-Reliance

Mr. Wisz is a financial journalist in New York. He also works as a volunteer with the National Reform Association assisting church groups in setting up job readiness programs for the homeless.

Broadway Presbyterian Church, located in uptown New York City near Columbia University, has always had a place in its heart for the poor people in its community. That’s why the church started a soup kitchen in 1980. The indigent, many of whom were drug-addicted and incapable of holding down a job, would come to the church to eat.

As time passed, other organizations—including student groups at Columbia and nearby Union Theological Seminary—also volunteered at the soup kitchen. Before long up to 250 people were eating lunch in the church’s basement every day. It had become a sprawling volunteer enterprise. But even its most ardent supporters began to realize something was missing.

Chris Fay, a sexton at the church, and Bill Stewart, one of its members, were among the people at Broadway who felt frustrated with the soup kitchen concept. As the program ballooned, they noticed how the people who frequented the church’s facility came only to continue in their self- destructive habits. Lunchers made no visible attempt of using the meals to sustain them until they could afford to feed themselves. For them the soup kitchen had become yet another entitlement; if anything it helped subsidize their dependency.

Aiming for Self-Reliance

In 1990, Stewart came across “The Miserly Welfare State,” an article by Marvin Olasky in Policy Review. Olasky showed how the problem with the welfare state is not that it spends too much on the homeless, but that ultimately it does not—and cannot—spend enough. Minimal stipends and perfunctory bureaucratic counseling are about all the welfare state can provide a growing dependent population. These, Olasky wrote, are poor replacements for personal acts of charity that encourage self-reliance. Charity, as earlier philanthropic organizations understood but contemporary ones have largely forgotten, emphasizes practical measures that help people help themselves.

Impressed with the article, Stewart made copies to circulate among the church’s board of elders. “The article put into words what many of us were feeling for a long time but couldn’t quite articulate or conceive of doing ourselves,” said Stewart, who is partner of a shipping-insurance business in midtown. “The responsibility model, instead of the welfare model, is where we knew we had to migrate.”

Migrating wasn’t easy. The church was divided over the issue, and compromises were made, but in the end most agreed a different approach was needed. The soup kitchen was kept, but with the understanding that it would serve as a gateway to a responsibility-based program for those wanting to change.

Opposition came early from the Presbyterian denomination of which Broadway was a part. The regional and national officers of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have drifted into a preoccupation with political correctness. Part of Broadway’s new plan was Street Smart, a program wherein men visiting the church for food agree to sweep the sidewalks along storefronts on upper Broadway for a minimum wage. If they show up for work on time, stay off substances, and cooperate with the program director, they get raises in 25-cent increments. There’s also an opportunity for promotion to supervisor. Visiting presbyters from the denomination condemned the program as “racist” since participants are black.

Summoned before the presbytery, program organizer Chris Fay didn’t even have to defend himself. John Sligh, one of the Street Smart sweepers, stood before the assembled clergy and elders—many of whom were also black—and told them how the program had taught him the importance of self-sufficiency, which gave him back his self-respect. “He told them we, through the program, probably saved his life,” Fay reported. “They didn’t have a lot to say after that.” Today the New York metropolitan presbytery is among Street Smart’s largest financial supporters. In operation for two-and-a-half years, Broadway’s program has received only a few thousand dollars of public funds for an art therapy project. The rest is financed by private giving from within and outside the church.

Rewarding Responsibility

The soup kitchen changed. Now fewer people are fed each day, and the church actively encourages visitors to volunteer in preparing, serving, and cleaning up after meals. If they do so, they get food to take home. If their help continues with some consistency, they get a stipend. Like Street Smart, the kitchen volunteer program also provides avenues for raises and advancement.

There is a Bible study—distinct from Broadway Community, Inc., the nonprofit umbrella organization that runs the program—where participants receive spiritual nurture. The Bible study, like other aspects of Broadway’s outreach, is purely voluntary. If there are serious problems like severe drug addiction, however, participants are referred to a city agency.

Broadway has worked with 15 people this year, and of these Moira Ojeda, the program director, said she thinks “seven are going to make it.” Two already have jobs outside the church program. Last year, one received his commercial driver’s license and is now driving a truck full time.

Participants in the program draw up a “covenant” with Ojeda. They list goals, what they plan to do to accomplish them, and report to Ojeda periodically to review their progress. The covenants are signed, and are expected to be kept. “Once progress is made in achieving a goal, and reported to me and the group at large, we move on to the next one, which is built on the previous one,” Ojeda said. What state welfare office, even with all the “two-years-and-out” talk, does this?

Teaching responsibility step-by-step has worked. The numbers are small, but the change in lives seems permanent. But Bill Stewart is not too concerned about the numbers right now.

“While we’re sure we won’t succeed with everyone, we’re sure we’ll succeed with many,” he said of the two-and-half year-old program. “We’re not trying to solve society’s problems, but we’re trying to develop a model that succeeds with people willing to make a change in their lives—to lift themselves out of alcohol, drugs, degradation, and despair and come back into a community of family, friends, and the working world. If we can point to this and say that it works, we’ll spread it as wide and as far as we can.”