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During Mass one Sunday after the reading of the Gospel, I settled into the pew for the homily. I expected the usual treatment of the day’s readings and a passing reference to how we can apply the words of Scripture to our everyday lives. However, on this day, the homily would have a relevant meaning for individuals and churches throughout America.

In his homily, the priest told of his first assignment after being ordained. He was to serve an inner-city church with mostly poor members. This was not exactly what the priest desired from his new vocation. In fact, he admitted he was a bit disgruntled. After all his years of education at the university and seminary, he found himself cleaning tables after providing free meals for the surrounding neighborhood. After one particular hard day, he stormed into his superior’s office and shouted, “I did not go through this many years of training and study to clean up tables for ungrateful people. I became a priest to preach the Gospel!”

After his brief explosion, the priest resigned himself to the job and somewhat relunctantly proceeded with his usual routine until the day when he felt a tugging at his pant leg. He looked down to find a smiling young girl with food spread over her face glaring up at him. She exclaimed, “That sure was good pudding. Thanks.” It may have been a small token of appreciation, but the priest claims this small incident made him realize that he was doing what he was trained to do: being a servant to the poor. No longer was he helping nameless, ungrateful objects, he was helping to make a difference in individual lives.

Although he may not know it, this priest touched upon the main problem with today’s welfare state: the lack of individual interaction with the nation’s poor. This robs both the poor and those who support the welfare state (churches and individuals). The poor are given hand-outs without any true companionship or moral guidance, while churches and individuals are led into the false belief that virtue can be attained through paying tax dollars.

True welfare reform would address the spiritual needs of our nation’s underclass as well as challenge churches and individuals to become actively involved in solving the problems of the underclass. In order to accomplish these two objectives, we must first define the problems that plague our welfare state.

What we are really talking about when we speak of welfare reform, is how to deal with what has become known as the “underclass.” Its members stay on the welfare rolls for ten years or more. Indeed, we are now seeing three generations of welfare dependency in some underclass families. The underclass is partly characterized by violent crime, drug abuse, illegitimacy, and a lack of work ethic.

While these attributes have begun to affect our whole society to some extent, no one is more hurt by these actions and the associated values than the underclass. The Murphy Browns of the country can probably succeed in raising children in a single-parent environment because of their relative affluence and the head start they were given by their family and education. However, the members of the underclass do not have these luxuries. As Myron Magnet has pointed out in The Dream and the Nightmare, “The Haves may pay a price for experimenting with sexual liberation or drugs or dropping out (almost always temporarily), but is usually not a catastrophic price, nothing like the price the Have-Nots pay in ruined lives.”

The more one looks at the problems of the underclass, the more it becomes apparent that government cannot solve these problems. No amount of government redistribution of income or restrictions on eligibility requirements for welfare are going to solve these behavioral problems. As Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor of National Journal, notes, “America has entered a period when its problems are of kinds that government is poorly adapted to solve.” So, if government is not the answer, what is?

Before the Great Depression, and to a great extent before the Great Society, churches handled most of the welfare functions not administered by government. The churches put the indigent to work and taught them the importance of sobriety, hard work, and family life. However, as the government has taken a greater role in social welfare, the incentives for local churches and individuals to become involved has slowly eroded. These developments have deprived the underclass of what they need most: moral guidance and proper role models. Traditionally, this area is the domain of churches, not governments. Research by Harvard economist Richard Freeman points out this fact. His studies conclude that black men who regularly attend church are less likely to become involved in crime or drugs: “Church-going has a powerful negative effect on socially deviant activity.”

Church-based welfare offers churches the chance to once more become an active agent in helping the downtrodden join mainstream society. In contrast, today’s churches lead members into the isolation of self-concern. If a church does not address morality and directly help its fellow human beings, why go to church? Maybe this is the reason the Fundamentalist creeds that speak to personal morality have grown steadily in recent years. Meanwhile, church membership in mainline denominations has fallen while many people seek their “religion” in various New Age movements and other fads.

How do we enable the church to reclaim its mission as servant to the poor and treat the moral problems that plague our underclass? One plan would allow the people who hold the stock in a democracy (i.e. the taxpayers) decide how to spend their tax dollars on welfare programs. This proposal would not completely abolish government welfare programs, but merely makes government welfare agencies compete on an even level with church-level charities. Under this plan, Congress would appropriate a percentage of the national budget to social welfare (AFDC, Medicaid, social services, Supplemental Income, training programs, etc.). For the sake of argument, let us suppose that Congress appropriates fifteen percent of the national budget for social welfare. Individuals would then have the choice how they will spend this fifteen percent of their tax dollars by indicating on their tax returns how they wish the money to be divided up among various organizations and the government. One must make sure that great care is made in implementing this plan efficiently so as to avoid creating another cumbersome bureaucracy in Washington.

This type of system would allow individuals to avoid the present bureaucratic method of welfare and choose how best to help the underclass. They could give their tax dollars to the local church that runs a church welfare program in the inner city, or give it to the federal government if they think it is doing an adequate job. Instead of the normal response of throwing money at welfare recipients, under this system it would be possible to address the dysfunctional behavior of the underclass.

The main questions facing such a proposal are obvious. Do individuals and churches truly want to make a personal difference in the lives of our nation’s underclass? Are they willing to donate the time and effort that such a system would grant them? Or, do they merely want to wall off their neighborhoods, office buildings, and churches while pretending the underclass does not exist? Can we continue to assuage our consciences through tax dollars while the underclass festers in our nation’s cities?