Where Checks Alone Can't Help

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

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

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I met Ed at a Sunday-afternoon town meeting in nearby Jackson, organized by Susan Rogers, who runs the RSVP of the Ohio Valley, a national-service program affiliated with AmeriCorps. The meeting was held downtown, in Janelle's Fresh Baked Goods Shop. It was attended by about 20 people doing good works in the community, including Jackson's mayor, Randy Heath, and a young state representative, Ryan Smith, a Republican who was one of three people who choked up while talking about their town. There were representatives of government programs like Dr. Ken Murray and his wife Cassandra, who run a local mental-health clinic. Ken said he'd seen a lot of families fall apart, with the parents losing custody of their children to the state and unable to get them back because it was hard to find jobs and straighten out their lives. Cassandra began to tear up when she described a parenting program the clinic ran before the program was shut down by Governor John Kasich's budget cuts.

The bright line between public and faith-based programs was smudged in Jackson. Several of the ministers in the room, like Tony Conley, work with Dr. Murray or other public programs. But the preponderance of good works--feeding and clothing the poor, treating the addicts--seemed to be done by the churches, and the ministers had many of the same problems as their parishioners. Kevin Dennis, who runs the Field of Hope program, has a relative who is serving time in prison for drug offenses. Terry Witt, whose great-grandmother was one of the famous feuding McCoys, ran Transforming Lives thru Christ Ministries, but her husband was hit by a semi, and in his pain and hopelessness he became addicted to pills. "God has not forsaken this place," she said. "Man has."

And public officials, while conservative, are trying to get government funding to help the area. Smith, a former financial adviser, said he had maps on his office wall that showed the Jackson area ranking first in the state in poverty among senior citizens and children. "I want to keep that in mind every day," he said. For Heath, both the federal and state governments were oppressive. "The Obama Administration is dragging its heels in permitting new coal-fired plants," he said, adding that he was required to spend an unfunded $17 million on improvements to his sewage-treatment plant, which would raise local taxes significantly. "You have some people in Washington and Columbus who want us to live in a perfect world," he said, "and that would be nice, but we just can't afford it."

It sometimes seemed, as I listened to these people, that the job of government, both federal and state--and believe me, many people don't know the difference--was to throw up roadblocks to economic progress and cut funding for necessary programs. The job of the local faith-based community was more immediate: to comfort and console. But the federal government also wrote a lot of cold, impersonal checks--unemployment, old-age entitlement, disability--that kept people alive. With all these complicated forces tearing at their lives and helping them get by, it was difficult for an average Jacksonian to figure out where his or her economic self-interest actually was in standard political terms.

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