Near the start of the pandemic, in a gentrifying neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah, visitors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived at Danielle Bellamy’s doorstep. They wanted to read the Book of Mormon out loud, watch LDS videos, and set a date to get baptismed. This was all she said the church was asking her to do in exchange to giving her food.
Bellamy, who was desperate for help, had applied for cash assistance through the state of Utah. But she’d been denied for not being low-income enough, an outcome that has become increasingly common ever since then-President Bill Clinton signed a law, 25 years ago, that he said would end “welfare as we know it.”
Bellamy was then specifically recommended by state employees to seek welfare from the church, she and her family members stated in interviews.
Bellamy’s family was on the verge of homelessness. The rent on their apartment continued to rise — a result of Utah being the fastest-growing state in the nation, a trend driven in part by young, upper-middle-class people from California and elsewhere flocking to Salt Lake City’s snow-capped slopes to enjoy its outdoor activities, tech jobs and low taxes.
Bellamy, who is unable to stand and has a severe autoinflammatory condition, is frequently hospitalized for days. Jaidyn, her younger daughter, had to drop out from high school to take care of her. She helped her get up, lie down and bathe, as well as changing out the wound vacuums.
Although maintaining a safety net for the poor is the government’s job, welfare in Utah has become so entangled with the state’s dominant religion that the agency in charge of public assistance here counts a percentage of the welfare provided by the LDS Church toward the state’s own welfare spending, according to a memorandum of understanding between the church and the state obtained by ProPublica.
According to budget documents, this means that the Utah State Legislature has been allowed to spend at least $75 million to fight poverty over the past ten years, which is more than it would have to under federal law.
The church’s extensive, highly regarded welfare program is centered at a place called Welfare Square, ensconced among warehouses on Salt Lake City’s west side. There, poor people — provided they obtain approval of their grocery list from a lay bishop, who oversees a congregation — can get orders of food for free from the Bishops’ Storehouse, as well as buy low-priced clothes and furniture from the church-owned Deseret Industries thrift store. (Bishops may also authorize temporary cash assistance to pay rent or car payments. Often, recipients must volunteer to help the church.
Welfare Square was built during the Great Depression in 1938. intentional repudiation by church leaders of government welfare as epitomized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. We “take care of our own,” they famously said.
But Bellamy, a Black single mother, is not one of the church’s own — and, unlike the government, a church is often allowed to discriminate based on religion.
Bellamy explained that the bishop of her local congregation (called a ward) decided that she would need to understand and read LDS scripture before she could receive welfare. ProPublica. She said that church representatives visited her apartment to determine what food she needed and to press her to attend Sunday services.
A church spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak on the record for this story, said that Bellamy’s is just one experience, and there are likely thousands of people across Utah who would swear by the help they’ve received from the church and the guidance they’ve been given toward a more self-sufficient life. He said that because some bishops are more rigid about providing aid than others, some people may wind up in situations like Bellamy’s, but that most in the church default to compassion.
A spokesperson stated that welfare conversations are between individuals (like Bellamy) and their bishop and that the church would never break what it considers sacred confidentiality.
Bellamy agreed to do what was asked. She felt she’d go along “if that’s what I needed to do for some type of goodness to come to my family,” she said, adding that she knew that many in her community had benefited greatly from church welfare and their LDS faith.
She was hesitant to be baptized in public, and she was not the only one. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t believe in it. And it’s important what I believe in.”
She claims that her refusal to accept welfare was the reason she and her family were denied assistance by the church.
Utah After Welfare Reform
ProPublicaIs investigating the state of welfare across the Southwest, where the skyrocketing cost of living has made cash assistance for struggling families — an issue that has been brought to the fore again amid debate over President Joe Biden’s child tax credit — more desperately needed than ever.
What the 1996 welfare reform law did, in essence, was dramatically shrink the safety net for the poorest Americans while leaving what aid remained in the hands of individual states, issuing each a “block grant” of federal welfare funding and significant discretion over how to spend, or not spend, the cash.
Ever since, welfare has taken on each state’s personality.
There’s perhaps no better place to examine the past and future of public assistance than Utah, the only state with a private welfare system to rival the government’s. After all, the welfare program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints served as a model for the welfare reform movement of the 1980s and ’90s, when it was spotlighted by then-President Ronald ReaganDuring a visit LDS welfare facilities, and in the writings by a young conservative named Tucker Carlson.
The first thing Utah did under the 1996 law was to become increasingly closefisted about helping poor people, creating a labyrinthine system of employment and self-improvement programs that applicants must partake in — including resume-writing seminars, screenings for drug use, counseling sessions and continual paperwork — as well as strict income limits they must not surpass. About 3,000 families living in poverty were receiving direct assistance from the state as of 2019. a precipitous decline from the mid-’90s, when Utah’s program served roughly 60% of these parents and children. (Utah denied welfare requests, on average, more that 1,300 times per month last year, even during the pandemic.
A single mother of one is eligible for $399 per month in state assistance. This is only if her net income is less than $456 per month.
Utah doesn’t do more for those in need in part because a contingent of its lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latter-day Saints themselves, assume the church is handling the poverty issue; they also are loath to raise taxes to do the state’s share, a review of Utah’s legislative history demonstrates.
Thanks to “the LDS Church’s welfare system, literally millions, tens of millions and maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars are saved by the state,” former state Sen. Stuart Reid said in 2011, when the Legislature passed a resolution honoring church welfare on its 75th anniversary.
Indeed, Utah has been counting millions in church welfare work every year as part of the state’s own welfare budget, as a way of meeting the minimum level of effort the state is required to put into addressing poverty so it can collect on federal dollars from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. According to the memorandum, Utah is entitled to a percentage of the time that church volunteers spent packaging food and clothing for the homeless at Welfare Square and similar facilities.
It also claims as state welfare a percentage of the church’s efforts to produce and ship out humanitarian aid in the wake of disasters — aid that may not even help Utahns.
Officials at Utah’s public assistance agency, which after welfare reform was named the Department of Workforce Services, said they do not know how long they’ve had this “third-party” understanding with the church. But they emphasized that it’s legal under the 1996 law and subsequent federal regulations, and that other states engage in the same practice. This law was the first federal legislation that allowed religious groups to participate in the provision government-funded social services. It was championed by Senator John Ashcroft, and later by President George W. Bush.)
ProPublica found that the deal with the church was brokered in 2009 during the Great Recession, when Utah hired a for-profit company called Public Consulting Group Inc. to identify private organizations that could help the state spend less on welfare while still receiving full federal funding, according to Utah’s contract with PCG.
According to interviews with more then three dozen former caseworkers or applicants, when the state refuses to help low-income Utahns it sometimes suggests that they seek welfare assistance from the church.
“You would explain to them, ‘Have you talked to an LDS bishop?’” said Robert Martinez, an eligibility worker for the Department of Workforce Services from 2013 to 2019.
Martinez said that he offered applicants other non-governmental options to consider and that there was never any pressure to follow the religious path. He stressed to them that the church has more money than the state can provide. (In actuality, the church actually appears to have more money than what is by most accounts the largest philanthropic organization in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)
Liz Carver is the Director of Workforce Development at the Department of Workforce Services. She is also the lead TANF official at this agency. In multiple interviews, Liz Carver acknowledged that caseworkers might sometimes offer customers church welfare. This is what the department calls citizens applying for public assistance.
She explained that welfare caseworkers nationwide refer people to a wide range of faith-based community organizations. It’s part of a larger conversation with these individuals about what brought them to ask for help that day, she said, and about which needs the government can assist with under the federal regulations and which it can’t.
Carver pointed out that Utah is one of the most populous states in the country. most charitable states in the nation, characterized by a strong ethic of neighbors helping neighbors, which makes the agency’s public-private offerings stronger.
Regarding the state’s fiscal arrangement with the church, Carver said, “We’d have to ask the state Legislature for more money if we couldn’t count this partnership” toward state welfare.
“I mean, we could be counting millions of hours of [church members’] volunteer time, bishops helping their communities, all that stuff,” she continued, suggesting that the current amount of church assistance that Utah is claiming as the state’s is minimal and necessary.
Christina Davis, communication director for the department, added in an emailed statement that the fact that caseworkers may refer Utahns to the church and other private groups is a separate and unrelated issue from the state’s budgetary agreement with the church welfare program.
She also highlighted that the state provides assistance to tens of thousands more low-income households in Utah, including food stamps or Medicaid.
Davis also noted that the number of people in poverty who receive direct assistance has been drastically reduced, not only in Utah, but all across the country.
The problem with Utah’s dependence on church aid to pick up that slack, civil rights advocates say, is that although the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, once instructed his membership to clothe the naked and feed the hungry whether they are“in this church, or in any other, or in no church at all,” the thousands of individual bishops who today run point for LDS welfare services may have different views.
Most people are always generous with assistance. But some might feel justified in politely denying assistance to poor people who aren’t Latter-day Saints — or to LGBTQ people — even in some cases turning away struggling church members who haven’t been attending services or paying 10% of their income to the church in tithes.
“There’s this term in the church called ‘bishop roulette,’” said David Smurthwaite, a former bishop in Salt Lake City, referring to the differing choices about welfare that get made by each bishop in congregations across the state.
Smurthwaite claimed that he was provided with a list to answer questions by low-income people who visited his office seeking help. But, he said, bishops are “not professional welfare providers, not professional therapists, yet we get put in the hot seat for these kinds of experiences.”
The lay role of bishop is usually for around five to ten years. They are often employed in day jobs, unlike other clergy from other faiths. Their politics can also influence their religion, just like any other person.
There’s also much less accountability than there would be for a government program. Welfare decisions by bishops are subject mainly to the broad tenets of the church’s “General Handbook,” usually with counsel from other church leaders but without oversight from the public.
“If a state’s premier social safety net is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, “what does that mean if you’re not one?”
Separation of the Church and the State
The very first wordsThe First Amendment is not about freedom to speak or the right of protest, but rather a warning against the government’s establishment of religion.
That is why the state of Utah’s welfare-provision system being intertwined with the LDS Church is “troubling,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on the separation of church and state. “I can’t think of anything at all analogous,” he said, adding that if someone sues, it would be a “novel” case.
Laycock noted, though, that if Utah’s granting and denying of welfare applications isn’t itself religious in nature, it may not matter legally that the state then tells some applicants deemed ineligible about a private source of aid — even one, like the church, that may judge them based on religion.
Nathan S. Chapman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Georgia, said a key question is whether Utah has “partnered” with the LDS Church to enough of an extent that the overall system for providing welfare in the state is “insufficiently religiously neutral” and thus denies vulnerable people “true private choice” as to whether to partake in religion so they can receive assistance.
However, he said that the state could argue it is not constitutionally bound to provide welfare for citizens and that there are a number of private aid providers. These include the LDS Church as well as other less publicized entities like Catholic Community Services.
ProPublica interviewed more than two dozen low-income Salt Lake City-area residents about their experiences with Utah’s safety net. Almost all who weren’t active church members — and even many who were — felt that welfare in Utah is religiously prejudicial, at least in practical terms, because the state has left a vacuum of social services that’s filled by individual bishops and their potential biases.
Candice Simpkins, a member of the church from her childhood, said she struggled to pay her bills after her daughter’s birth. However, she knew from a state website that her income was too high to be eligible for public assistance. When she went to a bishop for help instead, she says, she was told that she wouldn’t be in her situation if she hadn’t had sex out of wedlock, and that she would have to start attending church services. (Feminist Mormons believe that Utah’s welfare system is especially harsh on women. Critics claim that bishops are all male and view both premarital and divorce, which can lead into precarious financial situations as the fault of women.
A close friend of Simpkins’, whom she called in tears after her interaction with the bishop, corroborated her description of what happened.
Jo Alexander, a lesbian who was homeless, claimed that she needed a hotel room because she was desperate. But she knew she couldn’t get public assistance from the state because she had received it around two decades ago as a young woman and therefore had exceeded her lifetime limit under another of the rules implemented under welfare reform. So she sought out a bishop.
She was raised in the church and was denied. She claims that it is well-known in the community that her sexual orientation is gay, and that this is the reason she was rejected. (A friend confirmed her account, but there are no public records about these private conversations with bishops.
And Miranda Twitchell, who is currently homeless, says the rules and procedures for obtaining state aid are so convoluted and seemingly endless that she had nowhere to turn except the church for immediate help when she needed food and a bed — and that’s when she decided to follow a piece of advice shared on the streets: “Get baptized, get help.”
Some low-income people in Salt Lake City say they have gotten baptized just to obtain welfare, even though they don’t believe in the ritual. Most of those who had done so were afraid of speaking on the record, fearing that the church would discover their conversion stories were unauthentic and not help them in the future.
The LDS spokesperson defended the church’s approach to welfare in part by emphasizing that the church should not be confused with a government agency or considered a replacement for the government in the provision of public assistance. (Indeed, the LDS “General Handbook” clearly statesChurch members should first turn to the government for financial assistance before going to their bishop.
A spokesperson for the church stated that it does care about its own members, as it is a religious institution. If a nonmember seeks help, there’s less of a preexisting relationship with that person, and a bishop may ask the individual to come to services to see firsthand what his or her needs are. The church members then establish relationships and extend a helping hand.
Finally, he said, one of the church’s larger goals is for people who are struggling financially to learn self-reliance and industriousness, not dependency. This could be why some people felt rejected when they sought ongoing assistance.
Experts on charitable givingIt is worth noting that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and its members, do more to help people in need than any other religious community. (In Utah, the churchhasgivenTens of millions will be spent to combat homelessness.
Many active Latter-day Saints living in Salt Lake City said that they have a better safety net than any other state when they are faced with financial hardship. They can count on the church to help them with food, clothing, furniture, rent, utilities and repairs.
Benjamin Sessions, the executive director of Circles Salt Lake (an anti-poverty community organisation), said that a struggling family called him recently in the middle of the night while they were huddling in their car, with nowhere to go. Sessions called up a local LDS leader he knows personally, who simply said, “What do you need? Get me a list.”
Help from the church is “dramatic and it’s quick,” Sessions said. “If you ask me to choose between calling up someone at the state versus someone at the church, I would call the church 10 out of 10 times.”
Others believe it is a strength that so many religious groups, such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, provide food and shelter for the poor.
“If someone has to listen to preaching to get free food, is it less than optimal? Sure,” the Cato Institute’s Michael D. Tanner told The Atlantic. “But it’s probably not the thing I’m most worried about.”
Experts on religious charity claim that most faith-based organizations don’t require basic survival aid to include religious rites like baptism or worship.
Even lifelong members of the Salt Lake City church told this story. ProPublicaThey were denied welfare from the church for religious reasons.
Amberlyn Robinson, a faithful churchgoer who says she missed services twice during her childhood, fell into deep medical debt when she was a young woman following a miscarriage that was almost as costly as it was traumatizing. She looked at her family’s finances and decided that the only way to pay the bills would be to be less consistent about tithing 10% of their limited income from her then-husband’s two jobs in retail, even though she worried God would smite her as a consequence.
Her bishop then denied her financial assistance, citing her failure to pay tithes as one reason — which left Robinson baffled as to how an inability to afford tithing could show anything but her need, she says, and made her so resentful that she ultimately left the faith.
Danilyn Levorsen, a member of the church as well as her parents, struggle with rent and bills when the cost of living in Salt Lake City increases.
Her husband, who has severe disabilities that add to the family’s expenses, is a fan of the supernatural. He volunteers at a haunted residence, Halloween is his Christmas and he has many tattoos.
Levorsen recalls that he asked a bishop to help him. The bishop replied by criticizing his lifestyle and wearing dark clothing.
“I hear on the news all the time that the church is shipping food to other countries,” she said, adding that she completely understands and supports those efforts, given the poverty in the world.
“But this is supposed to be their golden city, here,” she said. “And this is how they do us?”
It’s the State’s Responsibility
The onus to provide a safety net for America’s poorest families and children — and equal access to such services under the law irrespective of religion, gender, race or class — ultimately falls on the government, not a church that has a right to choose whom to serve.
Joel Briscoe, a former bishop of Salt Lake City, is now a Democratic state legislator. He said that he was a bishop and always had people come to him after they failed to get assistance from the state, particularly food stamps. He could only do his best to make up for public assistance being “ludicrous, the amounts are so small,” he said.
Utah’s stinginess with aid stems in part from its focus on putting welfare applicants to work — no matter how much work a family is already putting into just getting by.
In Bellamy’s case, a state employee told her daughter Jaidyn that the family could get assistance only if she stopped staying at home to care for her mom and instead got a job, the family said. She now works in a child care centre. Bellamy’s older daughter, Imani, works overnight shifts as a home health care aide.)
Bellamy stated that the state has provided food stamps to her; she also said that many people from the LDS church have shown her great kindness in her life.
While direct assistance was denied to many families, Utah was. as of a 2012 Government Accountability Office reportThe leader of the nation in aid that its government was supposed be providing to the poor, but was actually outsourcing to a third-party, nongovernmental organization.
States do not have the obligation to report the extent to that they engage in this accounting maneuver. 2016 follow-up GAO reportIt was discovered that 15 other states do it. Georgia was one of several states that aggressively accounted for charitable spending from groups like United Way, the YMCA and food banks.
Scott Dzurka was the former president and CEO of Michigan Association of United Ways. told the publication Bridge MichiganHis organization was eventually forced to stop allowing its work counted as welfare by the state. “We looked long and hard at that,” he said, “and raised concerns that really our resources may in fact be working against what we were trying to do, which was to supplement state poverty efforts, not replace them.”
The LDS Church declined comment.
For a brief period during Barack Obama’s presidency, the administration and Congress were both moving to prevent states from “gaming the system” by counting outside spending as their own. However, Congressman Tom Price, who was briefly the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, helped to kill the legislation that would have ended this practice.
Because states are largely allowed to count welfare dollars how they want, Utah has also been able to spread this money around among its lawmakers’ favored projects, many of which are aimed at preventing low-income people from having sex out of wedlock rather than providing them with direct aid. (This is despite mounting evidence that cash assistance — money — alleviates poverty — a lack of money — much more effectively than less direct interventions like parenting classes.)
The Utah Marriage Commission receives welfare funding, along with many other similar initiatives. These include a 4-H program called Teen Spheres of Influence that state budget documents say makes teens “3.4 times more likely to delay sexual intercourse through high school,” as well as a relationship program called “How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk or Jerkette.”
Davis, spokesperson for the Department of Workforce Services, stated that all TANF funding in Utah is consistent with federal regulations under welfare reform. This explicitly pressed states not to reduce pregnancies among poor women unless they are married, two-parent households.
Utah is still evolving, diversifying, and becoming less of an LDS stateTraditional family life is the focus. One area south Salt Lake City is so crowded with tech companies, it has been renamed the Silicon Slopes. Meanwhile, thousands of the region’s residents have become homeless over the past decade and are being pushed from one up-and-coming neighborhood to the next by the police and the health department.
Farther up the mountainside, past the lovely houses around the state Capitol, you’ll find their latest encampment set against a cliff above the blazing lights of the Marathon Oil refinery to the northwest. Most of the people here believe they were denied survival aid by the state, the church, or both. Many believe their rejection by the church was due their untidiness, refusal to attend church services that they find hypocritical, and an assumption by bishops that their financial assistance would not be spent on food but on drugs.
Michelle Low was raised in the faith. However, she claims that her home life was dysfunctional and that she became addicted to drugs as a young child. After that, she became homeless. Due to the lifetime limit on receiving assistance, she is avoiding asking the state for help. However, she would like to be able later to apply for it if she has to. (But she says she could use the aid to buy warm clothes and shoes and to pay her cousin rent so she’d have somewhere to live indoors.)
Low instead asked the church for help, despite the many intellectual and moral questions she had about church doctrine. But a bishop she spoke with said he couldn’t help her unless she made the choice to live together with and marry her child’s father, she says.
The bishop stated that they could be married in his office.
To which Low said, “He isn’t the right guy for me, and also I don’t want to get married in an office.”
“See,” she says, “it’s always ‘We’ll help you If.’”