Blinded by Metaphor: Churches and Welfare Reform

by Robert Bachelder

Mr. Bachelder, who has worked in banking, in 1987 was minister of Worcester City Missionary Society (United Church of Christ) in Worcester, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 14, 1988, pp.1147-1149. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted Brock & Winnie Brock.


Conservatives argue that the real problem is not poverty but dependency while liberals respond that the problem underlying poverty is not dependency but a malfunctioning economic system. Both repeat their outworn positions instead of listening to each other.

Public policy debates, complains Washington Monthly editor Charles Peters, tend to consist of a series of "automatic reactions" in which liberals and conservatives endlessly repeat their outworn positions instead of listening to each other. Mainline churches share in this tendency to repeat their favored positions and resist insights that are not their own. This approach has impoverished the churches’ treatment of a wide range of issues, including—to focus on a recent example—welfare reform.

The debate on welfare reform concerns what to do with people who have been on welfare for at least 30 of the last 60 months, a group comprising about 50 percent of the welfare caseload. Thirty-eight percent of welfare families stay on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) for five years or longer. Those who have been on AFDC for ten years or longer make up about 25 percent of the 11 million recipients, but consume about 60 percent of the more than $9 billion federal welfare budget.

Conservatives argue that the real problem here is not poverty but dependency—the inability of able-bodied adults to achieve the independence expected of citizens. Dependency is primarily a moral problem, the result of an ethos that promotes personal irresponsibility. Part of that ethos is a welfare system that subsidizes people without obligating them to work.

Thus the central question in the welfare debate for conservatives is how to overcome the "passivity of the poor." They think part of the answer lies in shaping behavior through workfare: tying welfare benefits to mandatory education and training programs or work requirements. While acknowledging that workfare is no quick fix for dependency, they believe it conveys the message that people are responsible for supporting themselves and their children.

Liberals respond that the problem underlying poverty is not dependency but a malfunctioning economic system. Pointing to such factors as a low minimum wage, the declining number of well-paying manufacturing jobs, and the continuing segregation of jobs by race and sex, they argue that the central issue is the availability and quality of work. Liberals advocate increased spending for education and job training, but oppose mandatory programs because they believe that the poor are already committed to making the most of their possibilities. As Representative Augustus Hawkins (D., Calif.) says: "I see no reason to mandate workfare for people who would be very glad to get jobs. It’s the undesirability of the jobs that they don’t like" (New York Times, September 18).

H. Richard Niebuhr observed that theologians are usually right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. The same can be said for conservatives and liberals in the welfare debate. For example, conservatives are wrong to minimize the importance of economic impediments to self-sufficiency. Even if dependency were eliminated today, material deprivation would persist. As Harvard’s David Ellwood notes, some two-parent working families are worse off than single persons on welfare. These families need to be supported through tax credits, wage subsidies, day-care support, and an increase in the minimum wage. Workfare is no substitute for these measures.

Liberals, for their part, are wrong to deny that poverty has an ethical and cultural dimension. True, some conservative arguments are specious—such as Charles Murray’s contention that AFDC encourages illegitimate births—and conservatives’ narrow focus on dependency has played into the hands of a Reagan administration prepared to blame the victims. Nevertheless, without exaggerating the extent of the decline of the work ethic among the poor, one should note that community leaders in the inner cities are themselves increasingly concerned about the dysfunctional behavior of the poor. While the cultural problem has its origins in blocked economic opportunities, it has taken on a self-perpetuating life of its own. The ethos of dependency requires direct attention of the kind given by the Urban League and the Children’s Defense Fund in their media campaign to discourage young ghetto males from fathering children they cannot support.

Whether workfare can actually make a dent in the culture of dependency is more debatable. Liberals’ cynicism about workfare is understandable. Early versions of the program were aptly dubbed "slavefare." Some of the newer ventures, however, which emphasize training and education, deserve to be employed on a wide basis. In a recent study of eight state workfare programs operating since 1981, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation found modest improvements in earnings and employment rates compared with control groups. And as Senator Daniel Moynihan (D., N.Y.) suggests, by changing the public perception of welfare recipients from "undeserving leeches" to "unemployed persons," workfare may help remove the stigma of AFDC and in time serve to increase benefits which currently are far below the poverty level.

After years of sparking automatic reactions from conservatives and liberals, issues of poverty and welfare are now eliciting a vigorous and complex academic and political discussion. It’s being recognized, as Mitchell Sviridoff of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation puts it, that there is no "silver bullet" solution to the growth of the underclass. A sociologist like William Julius Wilson can underline the importance of economic factors, pointing to the precipitous decline in manufacturing, and at the same time write frankly about the destructive influence of ghetto culture which lacks a viable middle class that once served as a "social buffer. What is required, writes poverty scholar Christopher Jencks, is a new moral contract between the dependent poor and the rest of society which recognizes both the need for the poor to assume responsibility for their behavior and the need for the nation to pursue policies that will address the situation of the poor.

Movement toward such a new contract has begun already in several states, most notably California, where the liberal emphasis on education and training has been combined with the conservative emphasis on demanding something in exchange for a welfare check. The Family Security Act of 1988 is a step in this direction at the national level. It provides more money for education and training while mandating work, education, or training for recipients. Single parents on welfare whose children are over the age of three are required to get regular jobs. If they cannot get work immediately, they must enroll in educational or job-training courses to be paid for by federal and state governments. To make this requirement manageable, single parents will be guaranteed one year of day-care assistance and one year of continued eligibility for Medicaid health coverage.

In two-parent households receiving welfare, one adult will have to participate in a job search. Failing to find a job, that person must work 16 hours per week in a state-organized job. This provision will be phased in by 1994. The legislation provides $3.34 billion to carry out the program for the first five years. Moynihan, a major architect of the bill, believes that significant results will be visible by the year 2000.

Given the inherently incremental nature of welfare reform, the new legislation represents, despite its shortcomings, a noteworthy advance in public policy. It was disappointing, therefore, to see church agencies such as the United Church of Christ’s Office for Church in Society side with unreconstructed liberals like Hawkins and oppose the bill’s work provision. This position signifies a failure of theological and moral imagination, and raises the question of why the church reacts automatically in public debates instead of helping to advance the discussion.

Consider, for example, Christian Faith and Economic Life (1987), the UCC’s version of the Roman Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy. It exemplifies an unreformed liberal approach to poverty and welfare. The paper declares that "there is a need to adopt a strategic option on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged in the formulation of government spending policy, " which is true. But while affirming the value of work as an "acknowledgment of personal responsibility," the paper’s authors seem oblivious to current discussions of dependency and workfare. Such omission is especially serious in a study paper addressed to a denomination that contains more than its share of prosperous Republicans who subscribe to the conservative view. They need to be challenged, but the automatic liberalism of the paper is likely to provoke automatic conservatism among others, forestalling genuine discussion.

The UCC paper’s inattention to the conservative position is more than a tactical error, however. The truncated idea of God that figures in the analysis, and in much of the rest of the church’s ethical reasoning, automatically precludes or minimizes the investigation of certain lines of thinking, and leads to reductionistic treatments of a wide range of issues.

Christian moral judgment should be informed, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested, by three closely related but contrasting metaphors of God’s reign. To know God as governor is to understand that human sinfulness disfigures the world and requires restraining influences. To know God as creator is to understand that the world remains good despite the effects of sin and is amenable to creative activity. And to know God as redeemer is to understand that God’s transforming power is always present in the world.

Christian thinkers must try to orient their judgments toward all three metaphors even though they tug in somewhat different directions. In practice, though, ethicists often exercise a preferential option for some single metaphor. Current approaches to sexuality, for example, as Don Browning has pointed out regarding denominational studies—including the UCC’s 1977 report—tend to use God the redeemer as their lead metaphor while neglecting references to God the creator and governor.

The metaphor of governor is missing or muted as well in current church thinking about political and economic issues. The absence of this metaphor corresponds with the broader movement of ecumenical social thought which, after a mid-century period of neo-orthodoxy, has headed, Paul Bock writes, "back in the direction of humanism" and taken a more hopeful view of the secular prospect. Such is the case in Is the United Church of Christ a Peace Church? (undated), which delegitimates the concept of nuclear deterrence. In this document, Eden Seminary professor Douglas Meeks develops his argument on the basis of the metaphor of God the creator. God, to whom we must look for our true security, "is the creator and author of justice who will in sovereign freedom create all things anew in peace." Dismissing out of hand the metaphor of governor, Meeks also dismisses Reinhold Niebuhr’s contention that international conflict is inevitable. One of the many implications of the metaphor of God as governor, H. Richard Niebuhr believed, is that we must exercise not only self-restraint but sometimes, in the interest of justice, restraint on others, even though we know that this is not fully right. It was within this framework that H. Richard Niebuhr made his case for "conscientious participation" in war. By refusing to admit the metaphor of governor into his discussion, Meeks relieves himself of the obligation even to consider seriously this line of argument and the attendant possibility that some form of nuclear deterrence might be acknowledged as a morally acceptable lesser evil.

A similar evasion is practiced by the Economics and Theology Group of the UCC that prepared Christian Faith and Economic Life. Complemented by the metaphor of redeemer, the metaphor of creator again dominates the theological discussion. God is described as the "Economist" whose work "is to make creation into a home." Humanity is said to be the steward or manager of God’s creation. The metaphor of governor is allowed into the discussion, but sinfulness is seen as existing exclusively in religious and economic systems that oppress the poor. Maintaining that "truth comes from the bottom up," the paper lapses into a Manichaeism in which the enlightened "have-nots" confront the deluded "haves." Failing to extend the implication of the metaphor of governor to a discussion of the poor themselves, the authors neglect the possibility that the moral plight of the poor might call for a restraining response such as workfare, even though this conflicts with the values of freedom of choice and privacy.

By no means does the metaphor of governor lead inexorably to an endorsement of workfare (or of nuclear deterrence). But the metaphor does direct us toward a process of inquiry involving certain kinds of practical moral thinking which might lead to such conclusions. It is one thing for the UCC authors to reject the arguments for dependency and workfare after they have been aired. It is something else to submerge the metaphor of governor and thereby preclude discussion of these issues.

William James wrote that he could not accept any rule of thinking that would keep him from accepting "certain kinds of truths if those kinds of truths were really there." The ethical reasoning too often evident in the UCC and in other Protestant churches reflects no such inhibition. It seems quite happy to ignore the possibility of certain truths. As a result, the churches’ political positions become "automatic."

The irony in this is that these churches pride themselves on openness to the world, when really their minds are closed; refusing to engage God in all of God’s dimensions, they cannot engage human experience in its fullness or complexity either. A church’s "automatic" position on welfare reform, then, is more than a political miscalculation. It represents spiritual and intellectual exhaustion, a recovery from which may prove as difficult as the elimination of material poverty.