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Why the LDS Church Social Welfare System Cannot Replace Government Aid

Shelves of food are on display in an area of ​​Welfare Square, a large complex where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides food, supplies and services to those in need. (AP Photo / Rick Bowmer)

Llast month, ProPublica co-published an article with the Salt Lake Tribune who exposed what the Tribune The editorial board later dubbed Utah’s “unholy amalgamation of church and state”. Investigative reporter Eli Hager explained how Utah’s public assistance programs relate to those offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hager revealed that the Utah state legislature was able to avoid spending at least $ 75 million on poverty reduction over the past decade by counting as its own a percentage of the social assistance provided by the ‘LDS Church. This shocking revelation has far-reaching ramifications. Not only does Hager show how particular LDS notions of morality were prerequisites for receiving material help, even forcing some Utahns to join the church for help, but the blurred lines between the church and the Government allowed supporters of the “small government” to fight poverty. initiatives to advertise the Utah system as a model. For example, the Church’s LDS welfare system resonated so strongly with many conservatives and libertarians from all religious backgrounds that a young Tucker Carlson once insisted that its “themes are those that the secular world would do well to study ”.

However, studying the history of the church reveals that the government has done more to reduce poverty and place Church members in financially secure positions than the church’s welfare system. Latter-day Saints have depended on government aid throughout the twentieth century, despite the expressed goal of church leaders to make all members “self-sufficient.” The “unholy fusion” between church and state in Utah is therefore not simply confined to state dependence on Mormon social services. On the contrary, “ungodly merger” could also be used to describe the dependence of church members on government largesse.

The Great Depression of the 1930s transformed the relationship between the Mormon Church and the state. Even before the stock market crash of 1929, Utah’s economy was in peril. Industries that experienced a massive boom during World War I, including mining, ranching, and transportation, suffered greatly from the post-war economy. Additionally, Utah’s high birth rate, combined with the state’s scarcity of arable land, has exacerbated these trends. Historians Garth Mangum and Bruce Blumell found that in 1930, long before the Depression took full effect, only 33.5% of Utah’s population had a “paid job,” less than any other state in the world. except Mississippi. In many counties, Latter-day Saints were unemployed at a much higher rate than their non-Mormon counterparts. For example, in Salt Lake City’s Southgate LDS neighborhood, or local congregation, 110 of the 173 heads of households in the neighborhood were unemployed in 1932.

With seven in ten Utahans belonging to the LDS Church during this time, local bishops have tried to help members in need. They created warehouses full of food and clothing, but these efforts proved insufficient. In response, the church owned and operated News from Déseret published an editorial that saw the government as “the appropriate agency” to “respond to the emergency.” Indeed, the government was the only entity capable of supporting the Utahns through the crisis. From September 1932 to March 1933 alone, Utah received $ 2,560,299 from the federally funded Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), an average of $ 5 per capita (the national average was only $ 1. $ 87 per capita). The state, and by extension the church, was so dependent on this aid that a federal emergency relief agent called Utah a “State of the Union” price.

Shocked and embarrassed by the Saints’ dependence on government, LDS Church President Heber J. Grant and fellow First Presidency member J. Reuben Clark created a system of relief “centered on the work ”in 1936. Later called the Welfare Plan, Grant and Clark hoped to save the Latter-day Saints from the morally mind-numbing“ unemployed ”government debauchery. “Our main focus,” Grant explained, “was to build up… among our people. Grant and Clark did everything in their power to convince the Latter-day Saints that government was not, in fact, the “appropriate agency” to meet the needs of the membership, and they did not. no qualms about making fun of the very programs that supported their members. Clark was so confident that church leaders had developed a superior welfare system, he publicly stated that they intended to remove all Saints from federal aid within five months. His estimate turned out to be naive.

While church leaders have publicly and ardently proclaimed the welfare plan a resounding success, statistics suggest otherwise. Historian Joseph Darowski found that in the plan’s first full year of operation (1937), the church spent $ 1,835,000 in direct relief and distributed an additional $ 115,000 in clothing, fuel and supplies. . However, federal relief efforts amounted to some $ 48 million in 1936 alone and $ 300 million throughout the Depression (about $ 6 billion by today’s standards). While the Saints proudly declared that they made each member “self-sufficient,” the welfare plan fell far short of meeting the needs of the Saints.

During World War II and the Cold War, the federal government continued to play a key role in revitalizing Utah’s economy. “Like a gigantic elevator,” wrote Mormon historians Leonard Arrington and Thomas Alexander in 1965, “World War II brought the state of Utah from the depths of depression to the heights of prosperity.” No description could be more apt. During and immediately after World War II, the federal government provided the infrastructure, jobs, education, and skills training necessary for many white men to achieve financial stability. To this end, a 2015 article in the Salt Lake Tribune described how Utah traded one form of federal welfare for another:. “Not wanting the men of the LDS to miss out on these opportunities, Brigham Young University set up a ‘Veterans Referral Committee’, which provided returning Mormon servicemen with information on the ‘privileges of the GI Bill of Rights and Veterans Rehabilitation Acts at BYU. ”In addition, the university has designed courses to train Mormon men for newly created jobs in the defense industry. many Mormon men go to college, get affordable housing, start a new career, and begin to build generational wealth. As historian Allan Powell summed up, the GI Bill expanded the capacity gain of beneficiaries, thus creating a larger middle class in Utah.

Yet church leaders once again masked the Saints’ dependence on government by touting the success of the welfare plan. As federal aid poured into Utah, church leaders simultaneously boasted that the wellness plan had restored the church’s ability to “support itself.” In 1952, for example, the News from Déseret insisted that it was the welfare plan that made every “needy” family of the “self-sufficient” church.

These statements raise substantial questions about the meaning of the term “self-sufficient”. LDS leaders did not discourage the Saints from accepting federally funded tuition, federally funded job training, federal employment, or low-interest mortgages. “Self-sufficiency” was therefore more synonymous with financial security than lack of dependence on government. This logic allowed church members to use unprecedented amounts of federal aid while simultaneously insisting that the welfare plan had lifted impoverished Saints out of the Depression and allowed the church to “Stand alone”.

The church’s ability to mask members’ reliance on government wealth creation programs in the middle of the century also allowed the welfare plan to testify to the effectiveness of private philanthropy. During a visit to an LDS welfare center in 1982, for example, President Ronald Reagan sarcastically proclaimed, “If more people had had this idea in the days of the Great Depression, it wouldn’t. there would be no government social assistance today or would not need it. In 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president, the Wall Street newspaper Commentator Naomi Schaefer Riley hailed the LDS Church Wellness Plan as a “symbol of strength and self-reliance” and a “safety net the government can never hope to create.” In what has become a mainstream model, the church reprinted these glowing stories, reinforcing the idea that the welfare plan alone deserved acclaim for helping members become financially stable.

To its credit, the LDS Church has created one of the most impressive charitable systems in the world. The architects of the Welfare Plan believed they had a responsibility to their fellows to tackle poverty the “right” way, and members have since made great sacrifices to that end. The generosity of the church is not even limited to its members. The welfare plan has provided relief in the wake of countless disasters (including Covid-19), and bishops have regularly assisted non-church members in their communities (although often with conditions) .

However, the Welfare Plan does not prove that Americans do not need government help, nor does it testify, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “to what people could do for themselves if they did not. had not been trained to believe that government was the only answer. Additionally, this self-sufficiency narrative ignores the hidden ways the government still helps many members, especially some of the wealthier, through tax breaks. The LDS welfare system can help the state meet the needs of its economically vulnerable citizens, but many members would not be able to donate as many to the welfare plan if the government had not revitalized it. Utah economy and created generational wealth. Rather than serving as a testament to the “self-sufficiency” of the Saints, the church’s ability to provide for the Utahns in need also shows the triumphs of an active and innovative federal government.

Allison M. Kelley is Visiting Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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