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Why the LDS Church Welfare System Cannot Replace Government Assistance

Shelves with food are displayed in an area of ​​Welfare Square, a large compound 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 Grandstand who exposed what from the grandstand the editorial board later dubbed Utah’s “unholy fusion of church and state”. Investigative reporter Eli Hager explained how closely Utah’s public assistance programs are with those offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hager revealed that the Utah State Legislature has been able to avoid spending at least $75 million on poverty reduction over the past decade by counting a percentage of welfare provided by l LDS Church as his own. This shocking revelation has profound ramifications. Not only does Hager show how particular LDS notions of morality were prerequisites for receiving material aid, even compelling some Utahns to join the church to receive help, but the blurred lines between church and state allowed the supporters of the “small government” to fight against poverty. initiatives to make the Utah system a model. For example, the LDS Church’s welfare system resonated so strongly with many conservatives and libertarians across the religious spectrum that a young Tucker Carlson once insisted that its “themes are those the secular world would do well to study”.

However, study of church history reveals that the government has done more to alleviate poverty and place LDS members in positions of financial security than the church’s welfare system. Latter-day Saints have depended on government assistance throughout the 20th century, despite the expressed goal of Church leaders to make all members “self-reliant.” The “ungodly fusion” of church and state in Utah is therefore not limited simply to the state’s reliance on Mormon social services. Instead, the “ungodly fusion” could also be used to describe the reliance 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 jeopardy. Industries that had experienced a massive boom during World War I, including mining, ranching, and transportation, suffered greatly in the post-war economy. Additionally, Utah’s high birth rate, combined with the scarcity of topsoil in the state, 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 “paying employment,” less than any other state in the US. exception of Mississippi. In many counties, Latter-day Saints were unemployed at a much higher rate than their non-Mormon counterparts. For example, in the Southgate LDS neighborhood of Salt Lake City, or local congregation, 110 of the neighborhood’s 173 householders were unemployed in 1932.

With seven out of ten Utahans belonging to the LDS Church during this time, local bishops 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 Desert News published an op-ed that saw the government as “the appropriate agency” to “respond to the emergency”. Indeed, the government was the only entity able to support the people of Utah during 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 worker called Utah “the ‘give me’ Union Prize state.”

Shocked and embarrassed by the Saints’ reliance on government, LDS Church President Heber J. Grant and fellow First Presidency member J. Reuben Clark in 1936 created a system of “work-focused” relief. Grant and Clark hoped to prevent Latter-day Saints from poaching on the morally mind-numbing “unemployment” of the government. “Our chief object,” explained Grant, “was to bring about … a system in which the curse of idleness would be eliminated, the evils of unemployment abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self-respect would be established again. among our people. Grant and Clark did everything in their power to convince Latter-day Saints that government was not, in fact, “the proper agency” to meet the needs of members, and they did not. had 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 declared that they intended to remove all Saints from federal assistance within five months. His estimate turned out to be naïve.

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 on direct relief and distributed an additional $115,000 in clothing, fuel, and supplies. products. 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). Although the Saints proudly declared that they were making each member “self-reliant,” the welfare plan did not come close to meeting the Saints’ needs.

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,” Mormon historians Leonard Arrington and Thomas Alexander wrote in 1965, “World War II lifted 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 job training necessary for many white men to achieve financial stability. To this end, a 2015 article in The Salt Lake Grandstand describes how Utah swapped one form of federal welfare for another: “News photos of skinny men with shovels in the Civilian Conservation Corps building dams in the canyons have been replaced with images of men and women assembling planes in giant hangars or rolling out steel by the ton. .” Not wanting Mormon men to miss out on these opportunities, Brigham Young University established a “Veterans Orientation Committee,” which gave returning Mormon servicemen information on “GI Bill of Rights Privileges.” and Veterans Rehabilitation Acts at BYU.” Additionally, the university designed courses to train Mormon men for newly created jobs in the defense industry. These benefits enabled many Mormon men to go to college, obtain affordable housing, start new careers, and begin to build generational wealth. As historian Allan Powell has summarized, the GI Bill expanded the earning power of beneficiaries, creating a larger middle class in Utah.

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

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

The church’s ability to mask the mid-century membership’s reliance on government wealth-creation programs also allowed the welfare plan to serve as a testament to the effectiveness of private philanthropy. During a visit to an LDS welfare center in 1982, for example, President Ronald Reagan ironically proclaimed, “If more people had had this idea when the Great Depression hit, there wouldn’t be government social assistance today or need. In 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president, the wall street journal Commentator Naomi Schaefer Riley praised the LDS Church’s welfare plan as a “symbol of strength and self-sufficiency” and a “safety net that government can never hope to create.” In what has become a common pattern, the church reprinted these glowing stories, reinforcing the idea that the wellness 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 fellow church members to deal with poverty in the “right” way, and members have since sacrificed much 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 helped non-religious members in their communities (although often with conditions).

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

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

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