Religion and social welfare in Indy

A Public Charity: Religion and Social Welfare in Indianapolis,


By Mary L. Mapes

Indiana University Press


Read this book if you ever wondered why we in Indianapolis have a drug culture, escalating poverty and homelessness, community disconnect, illiteracy and related school ills. Mary Mapes, a social historian specializing in the relationship between public and private social welfare agencies, presents many points of view in clear prose, and a conclusion that places responsibility for current social and education ills where it belongs. The book covers three issues: the role of religious social services within Indianapolis' larger social welfare support system, both public and private; the evolution of the relationship between public and private welfare sectors; and how ideas about citizenship mediated the delivery of social services.

Indianapolis' attitude toward assistance to people in need has been fueled by slogans such as the long-held "Hoosier independence," "100 percent American town," "middle class values" and the more recent declamations by former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and President George W. Bush, who embraces Goldsmith's belief "that individuals who did not prosper were responsible for their own failures."

President Bush, in line with Goldsmith's Hoosier heritage, places religion at the center of the lives of the underprivileged: "In the final analysis, there is no overcoming anything without faith - be it drugs or alcohol or poverty or selfishness or flawed social policy."

For a century, Indianapolis' notions of "worthy poor" and "unworthy poor" ran counter to federal attitudes of social welfare as a right of citizenship, not a charity to be doled out according to religious beliefs. Evaluating the current situation, Mapes concludes, "Ironically, Indianapolis became a trendsetter not because it adopted a new set of values but because it remained committed to its traditions." Bent on "saving souls," "public authorities did not want to provide assistance to unwed mothers - either black or white - whom they described as 'illicit.'

"In national circles, Indianapolis public welfare workers were noted for being 'unsympathetic toward the unsuccessful and punitive toward the nonconforming'" (page 58). Investigators of the Indianapolis Department of Public Welfare and Township Trustees concluded "the former was stingy and intolerant, while the latter was stingy and incompetent." Chapter 3 is the most painful to read. Indianapolis battled against the 1960s federal War on Poverty.

When it was possible to actually do something about the "painful history of inequality," Indianapolis beat down the challenge to the status quo, to "democratize the social welfare system and its political networks" and "to allow poor people to sit on the local poverty boards responsible for developing and overseeing programs."

"Traditional welfare authorities reinforced class and racial divisions and, as a result, limited the rights of citizens. ... Early in life, black school children who attended all-black schools learned that the dominant white community viewed them as an inferior population from whom whites needed to remain separate. ... Blacks not only earned less than whites but they also found entrance to higher-paying jobs closed."

Public policies have kept the poor from realizing full rights of citizenship and economic mobility. "It is one thing to find a former welfare recipient a job, but altogether a harder task to provide social support, such as child care and transportation, that facilitates success in the workplace."

Mapes concludes that it doesn't matter who is doling out aid - government, nonprofits or for-profit groups - when the rhetoric is the same: The poor are poor because they are sinful.

Mapes points out, "Marvin Olasky, a former communist turned evangelical Christian, has captured and articulated this frame of mind. Olasky has influenced how conservatives, including President Bush, understand social policy ... Olasky argues that immorality is the primary cause of most social ills ... sinfulness which only God's grace could change ... Although academics dismissed Olasky's work, conservative politicians embraced it."

Although "most Americans view the services [welfare agencies] provide as a charitable endeavor rather than a public responsibility," Bush's faith-based policy isn't working because churches aren't by nature designed to deal with the complex reasons people become poor and find it difficult if not impossible to move out of the cycle. Churches, furthermore, are not designed to deal with issues of centuries of denied political engagement to a whole segment of our population. "Fearing empowerment of the poor," Indianapolis' traditional leadership has developed a system of rhetoric to fuel that fear. "Local control" has become a code term for "elite domination." Indianapolis remains burdened by social ills because the cause of the problem fails to recognize it is the problem.