- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

Welfare reform requires still more changes in state agencies, including a new appreciation for grass-roots and faith-based groups, speakers at a federal welfare conference last week told state and community leaders.
Decades ago, when public welfare programs started, "there was a vision that government agencies, located in local communities, could play a very positive role in working with other community organizations to help our neediest, most vulnerable citizens," Andrew Bush, a White House senior adviser, said at the two-day conference sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services.
As the years passed, however, that "positive, ambitious vision about what public assistance could be was lost, to the point that when you said 'welfare' to anyone, anywhere, people hated it," said Mr. Bush, who has worked on welfare reforms in New York City and Wisconsin.
One of the breakdowns, he said, was the cooperation between public agencies and community groups.
The 1996 welfare-reform law revived some of these relationships, and now many people realize that "public assistance doesn't just have to be a way of handing out a check" and there is a "broader array of ways" to help people become self-sufficient, Mr. Bush said.
Still, one of the most powerful parts of the reform — the "tremendous flexibility" states have to design and run welfare programs — remains to be tapped, Mr. Bush said, adding that successful welfare programs require "a strong personal relationship between those who are helping and those who are being helped."
Leaders of grass-roots and faith-based groups applauded the idea of a new beginning for government-private collaborations.
Faith-based groups are "legitimate partners of government," said New Jersey Secretary of State DeForest B. "Buster" Soaries Jr., who is also an ordained minister at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens.
Mr. Soaries recalled how he was once approached by New Jersey officials who were frantic to find homes for dozens of babies abandoned in hospitals. The church community quickly responded with homes and went on to create a community-trained, state-certified foster-care network to respond to needs, he said.
Grass-roots organizations can help government do what it can't do for itself, Mr. Soaries said, adding that when it comes to funding, many faith-based groups aren't interested in grants, but will accept fee-for-service payments for some social services.

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