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Unholy merger of church and state takes advantage of Utah’s poor, Editorial Board writes

It is wrong for the state to expect people to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to avoid hunger and homelessness.

(Kim Raff | Special to ProPublica) Welfare Square, the center of the church’s welfare program, where some of the volunteers’ hours are counted as state welfare.

It’s no secret that Utah’s ruling class views those at the bottom of the state’s socioeconomic ladder with contempt.

Instead of directing the destitute, the ill and the nearly-homeless to an office that distributes necessary assistance, Utah points those in life’s most dire circumstances to its Department of Workforce Services, where the mission is to train people in pulling up their own bootstraps. Even if they don’t have any boots.

Clear message: You are not a human being who needs and deserves compassion. You are an underutilized piece of equipment that needs to be repurposed as a cog in the economic machinery of our state before you will be deserving of our attention.

Ugly. But, it turns out, the full truth is even worse.

An investigation by the nonprofit journalism collaborative ProPublica reveals that a thread running through Utah’s approach to the poor is not just that they aren’t worthy unless they have a job, but they aren’t worthy unless they are (or pretend to be) members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It’s a little more complicated. But the findings of the ProPublica reporting are stunningly bad nevertheless.

Utah’s rules for giving cash assistance to the poor are so Scrooge-like that almost nobody qualifies. As recently as 2019, Utah was providing cash assistance (beyond food stamps and Medicaid) to only about 3,000 households, out of 30,000 families living below the poverty level. Applications for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — what Bill Clinton put in when he kept his promise to “end welfare as we know it” — are rejected at the rate of 1,300 a month in the state.

So state employees often accompany a rejected application with a suggestion that people seek out the leaders of the local ward of the LDS Church in hopes of receiving aid from its undeniably large and often very generous welfare system.

By itself, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s legal and it is very much in the American tradition of supplementing official forms of aid with help from various private and faith-based organizations, providing more help without adding to the taxpayers’ burdens.

But two things make the unofficial link between our state and our state’s predominant church a problem. One of them is that it’s not altogether unofficial.

ProPublica unearthed a signed memorandum of understanding between Workforce Services and the LDS Church that calls for the church to quantify the aid it provides to the poor so that the state can count it toward fulfilling its obligation to spend money on assistance, not just dodge the responsibility it was given by the federal government as part of the 1996 welfare reform.

That deal has allowed the state to count at least $75 million in LDS Church welfare — cash and a measurement of volunteered labor — toward its own assistance efforts over the last decade. That frees up federal grant money for other, less direct, activities the state considers assistance to the poor, such as anti-drug and pro-marriage education.

Worse, once the vulnerable people are shunted over to the church, many of them are expected to accept proselytizing visits in their homes, to attend church services, even to be baptized in the faith, in order to qualify for food, cash or other assistance.

As an independent, non-government organization, the LDS Church is unquestionably free to give or deny aid to whomever it wishes, for whatever reasons it wishes.

But once a church’s welfare system gets tied to the state’s federally funded welfare operation, in the way the LDS Church’s efforts are linked to Utah’s, it is not so independent any more. It becomes a de facto arm of the state that, in these instances, pushes people to follow the rules of, or even formally affiliate themselves with, a religious organization in order to receive benefits they need to survive.

That is an obvious violation of the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion in America.

Reporting indicates that the amount of religious conformity those in need must demonstrate varies considerably with whatever LDS bishop they find themselves dealing with. Some ward leaders are happy to give food and cash to anyone in need, no questions asked. Others expect those who seek aid to follow a strict code of behavior and supplication.

None of that is in the least acceptable. It gives lay church leaders, who have no training in how to evaluate people’s needs and find the best ways to meet them, far too much leeway and makes the process far too arbitrary and capricious. Even an indirect link between such a system and federal and state spending is not to be tolerated.

Both the state and the church can afford to spend a lot more money to help a lot more people with not nearly as many strings attached. Doing so would create far more good citizens, and faithful members, than a system that turns its back on so many vulnerable people for the sin of being unworthy.

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