Janet Smith and her children were destitute.
The divorced mother of four earned $4 an hour working in a warehouse in the 1980s. She shopped at thrift stores and fed her family with food stamps.
Her church came to the rescue. She quit her job and returned to school, while the church paid rent, provided food and even drummed up teenagers to baby-sit her toddler.
In exchange, she painted bathrooms and did clerical work for the church.
Three years later, Janet got a full-time job as a hospital registered nurse. She now owns her own home and gives generously to the church that she says saved her.
Janet’s success was engineered by a private welfare program run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It relies solely on donations from the church and its members.
As federal and state governments struggle to reform the nation’s welfare system, the Mormon program increasingly is held up as a model for helping the needy.
The second-largest denomination in the Inland Northwest, Mormons are fiercely protective of their members who receive church help. Church leaders would not agree to let anyone on church welfare be interviewed unless their names were not used. Janet’s name was changed for this story.
Some state lawmakers, particularly Mormons in Idaho, suggest the government revamp its public welfare system by emulating the Mormon model and placing tight restrictions and demands on who gets help. Some members of Congress propose turning the entire public welfare system over to private charities, such as the Mormon Church.
Many religious and charitable groups scoff at that idea, saying they already are handling all the needy they can.
Not the Mormon Church. This is the 50th year for the Mormon welfare system. Church officials point to it as a shining example of how to help people learn to help themselves.
“The key is people are expected to do something for the assistance they receive,” said Steve Bates, president of the church’s Spokane Stake and chairman of the regional welfare committee.
Idaho State Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, hopes his colleagues take some lessons from the LDS church as they grapple with welfare reform this year.
A Mormon and a former bishop, Darrington wants stricter rules for welfare recipients. Those able to work should do so, even at minimum wage. The length of assistance should be limited, he said.
Mormon welfare system rules extend beyond recipients. The church expects help from every member.
One Sunday a month, members are instructed to skip two meals and fast for 24 hours. The money each family saves is donated to the local bishop, the unpaid leader of each regional ward.
The practice is not optional for members who want to remain in good standing, said Garry Borders, a church spokesman in Spokane. Donations are above the 10 percent tithing also required of members.
The bishop uses the money to help pay the bills of needy church members in his ward. Any extra - and most wards in the Inland Northwest have a surplus - is forwarded to church headquarters in Salt Lake City for welfare needs elsewhere.
The bishops also refer people to the Bishop’s Storehouse for free food and personal items, as well as to the LDS employment office and the LDS social services office for counseling.
The Mormon welfare system is set up to help the “worthy needy,” said Bishop Jim Fox of Spokane. The bishops determine who that may be. The church defines worthy as practicing members of the church in good standing.
If bishops don’t deem a person worthy, he or she doesn’t get help.
The Mormons started their network of storehouses and social services in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression. The idea was to help men provide for their families while also strengthening their faith and selfesteem.
Now there are 99 storehouses in the United States, each stocked with food and basic necessities.
Most of the items are produced by church-owned Deseret Industries, which runs farms, canneries, clothing factories and other businesses. Except for a few paid positions, Deseret Industries is staffed by a combination of volunteers and needy people, working in exchange for help.
“Every dollar donated for welfare, goes directly to the needy,” said Borders. “There is absolutely no overhead.”
Church officials won’t say how many people or how much money flows through their welfare system, saying that would violate confidentiality rules. Bates estimated the Spokane storehouse, which serves Eastern Washington and North Idaho, feeds between 100 and 300 families a month. There are about 75,000 church members in the region.
In most cases a bishop learns of a needy person or family through monthly visits to each household in the ward. Before help is provided, the bishop reviews that person’s finances.
“Sometimes the only thing we help them with is eliminating debt,” Fox said. “I’ve had people sell furniture and sell their homes. It’s a real practical thing. People just don’t use good sense sometimes.”
Bishops also encourage the needy to seek help from their family first. Fox said he has even called relatives on behalf of church members to ask for money.
“We have the responsibility to provide for ourselves, and then for our families, and then for the poor and needy,” he said. “I’d say 50 to 70 percent of the help comes at the family level.”
Once Fox or another bishop decides the family deserves help from the storehouse, he sends out the president of the ward’s Women’s Relief Society to fill out an order form, which must be brought to the storehouse in a sealed envelope.
“A beauty of the LDS system is we hand out commodities,” Idaho’s Sen. Darrington said. “We’re not giving them cash. We don’t allow them to waste their money on frivolity.”
Also a key part of the system: recipients must work in exchange for help. Janet Smith painted bathrooms and typed letters, while her sons did yardwork and other odd jobs.
Another Mormon woman in Spokane, living on $500 a month from Social Security, volunteers at the storehouse in exchange for a food donation every couple of weeks.
For all the demands, Janet said Mormon welfare was more dignified than the government variety, which she turned to earlier in her life.
“It’s total night and day,” she said. “I never felt bad about getting help, because I was working for it. The bishop, everything he did, he did out of love.”
Because of the strict confidentiality, few people in her church even knew she received help, Janet said.
“We want to help in a way that doesn’t drag a person down and make them feel bad,” Borders said.
The church discourages debt, including dependency on the government. There are Mormons on the public welfare rolls, but they would not be active church members in good standing, he said.
While many charity administrators admire Mormon welfare for its efficiency and broad support, few think the system could be applied to the general public.
“We believe in responding to needs without conditions,” said Mike Ryan, director of Catholic Charities, the largest private social service agency in the Inland Northwest. “Our whole understanding of what Christ did was reaching out to the disenfranchised.”
Catholics believe simply helping people in need is required by the Bible. Mormons believe Scripture says charity should be directly tied to changing behaviors that are wrong.
On top of that, few organizations have the resources of the Latter-day Saints, which is among the world’s richest churches. People familiar with the Mormon church estimate the denomination gets $2 billion in annual income and holds more than $8 billion in assets, most of it real estate.
Mormons say any group with large numbers and loyal members could duplicate their welfare plan and anyone could succeed under such a system.
“If a person is willing to make changes in their life, and correct the thing that got them into the problem, then this is a very generous system,” Borders said.
“But it’s not for those looking for a handout on an ongoing basis, without taking any responsibility themselves.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LESSON FOR STATES? Some state lawmakers, particularly Mormons in Idaho, suggest revamping welfare by emulating the Mormons’ system.