Where Checks Alone Can't Help

Churches and faith-based programs step in to sustain the working poor

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Pete Pin for TIME

State representative Ryan Smith and Susan Rogers at Michael's Ice Cream in Jackson, Ohio.

The question always comes up with Democratic audiences. It came up constantly during the first 10 days of my annual road trip--in Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and at a house party that more than 30 people attended in Charleston, W.Va. "Why," asked a lawyer named Ted Kanner, "do so many middle-class and poor white people vote against their economic self-interest?" Lawyers and educators, the heart of the liberal upper middle class, tend to ask this question. It has been popular since Thomas Frank's entertaining but not very substantial screed What's the Matter with Kansas? became a liberal cult classic. It is a question that is usually asked by people who equate more government programs, and higher taxes, with better lives for the working poor. There is much truth to that: in this killer recession, government entitlement programs have helped, the earned income tax credit has helped, unemployment insurance and food stamps have certainly helped. But it is only part of the truth.

And when you talk to the working poor and those plummeting from the middle class, as I did the past few days in southeastern Ohio, you find that most think of government as an abstraction--a thick, messy, bureaucratic one--and that on the ground, immediately, their self-interest, economic and otherwise, is served most faithfully by their churches and the faith-based programs that feed them, treat their addictions and provide community and a safe haven for their children. There has been an economic collapse--factories have closed, and they probably aren't coming back--but there has been a moral collapse as well. Drugs, divorce and out-of-wedlock births have devastated these communities. Charles Murray, the libertarian counter to Thomas Frank, delivered this argument in his recent book Coming Apart. But the problem isn't just moral collapse or economic collapse. It's a combination of the two, with a lot of crass materialism and relentless globalization thrown in. This is an incredibly sad story, one that neither liberals nor conservatives who opine from above fully understand.

Let me introduce you to Ed Burris, a landscape contractor in the Appalachian town of Gallipolis, Ohio. Ed was addicted to prescription pills like Percocet and Oxycontin for 21 years. He started when he was a freshman in high school. "Peer pressure," he said, "and there were some family scars I needed to forget." Six years ago, he attended his brother's baptism and found God. He got clean soon after in a faith-based drug program called the Field of Hope Community Campus. "And now my brother, who was baptized, is addicted to methamphetamine, which is a wicked, wicked drug," he said. "We're really struggling with this. But with the economy--the factories have all gone--and the poverty, you can get sucked into drugs real easily."

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