‘Get baptized, get help’: Utah’s welfare system is closely tied to philanthropy from the LDS Church
In 2019, the state of Utah provided direct assistance to just 10% of families living in poverty, and it’s not uncommon for case workers to send people to private agencies for help. That includes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But depending on the bishop — there could be a catch. ProPublica reporter Eli Hager heard it put this way, “get baptized, get help.’ ProPublica and the Salt Lake Tribune co-published an investigation into the relationship between Utah and the Church for welfare. Hager spoke with Caroline Ballard about what they learned.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: What does it take to get welfare from the state in Utah?
Eli Hager: You have to be below a very, very low maximum income level. You have to be making less than about $450 a month to even qualify in the first place if you're a single mother. And then once you do, there's a lot of ongoing paperwork — all kinds of programs that you have to take part of: employment programs, self-improvement programs [and] drug screenings. And for that reason, last year, including during the pandemic, Utah was rejecting 1,300 applications for help every single month. That's more than 90% of the applications that were coming in.
CB: Utah has a memorandum of understanding with the Church for Welfare in the state. That agreement has saved Utah $75 million in federal obligation over the last decade. How does the system work?
EH: Essentially, what is required of Utah by the federal law is that they do their share to fight poverty, but Utah is claiming credit for work that the LDS Church does as state welfare spending, even though it's done by the Church.
CB: How does that work, exactly? If somebody is coming in and they're applying to state welfare, how do they eventually end up with the LDS Church?
EH: Danielle Bellamy captures what the problem is here. She's a person who's at the moment really struggling to afford rent because, as you all know, rent is skyrocketing. She also has severe health problems and is often in the hospital for weeks at a time. She went to the state to seek direct cash assistance to help make ends meet. The state denied her because they said the family's income was too high. It was over that income limit that I mentioned before. And then caseworkers, according to the family, from the state, explicitly recommended that they go to the Church for help instead.
CB: What kinds of conditions did you see people sometimes run into when it came to getting help from the Church?
EH: And when Danielle went to the Church, visitors from the Church started coming over. They made her read aloud from church texts. They made her watch church videos, and they had her set up a date to get baptized. She really was pushed from the state to the Church and then forced to do religious things in order to get the help that she and her family desperately needed.
There's a term called 'bishop's roulette.' Some bishops are continually generous with the aid that they provide to people. Certain bishops are much more strict and rigid. So single mothers are judged by some bishops for having had sex out of wedlock, and they are sometimes denied help for that reason. Another group is LGBTQ people. There are certain bishops who use that as a reason to deny help.
CB: When people hear about this partnership, I think a lot of them would say, 'wait a second, what about separation of church and state?' How is this agreement legal?
EH: The 1996 welfare reform law during the Clinton administration is what's behind a lot of this, and that law was the first federal law ever to explicitly encourage religious institutions to be involved in the delivery of social services. That created a system where this kind of thing is allowed. I did talk to some experts on the separation of church and state about Utah’s system. They said that it was very troubling and that the key question is really whether the state and the Church have partnered to such an extent that the overall welfare system in Utah makes it impossible for individual poor people to have a true choice as to whether to go the religious route to get help.
CB: Utah is the fastest growing state in the nation. It's becoming less LDS. What are the implications of this welfare system as the state's demographics are changing so significantly?
EH: All of these folks who are new to the state or who might be from different demographic backgrounds, they may have trouble getting help if they fall on hard times. Even though it's becoming less LDS, people in power in Utah remain disproportionately LDS, especially in the state Legislature, which is where a lot of these decisions about how to use welfare money and who to give it to are made. So I think for there to be substantive change on welfare policy in Utah, it'll take changes in who's holding elected office. And I should be clear that the Church really does help a lot of people and has given millions of dollars to fighting homelessness in the state. It's just the question of what people are required to do when the state effectively outsources its safety net to a religious institution.