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The links between welfare in Utah and the LDS Church

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the United States, how you apply for public financial assistance - welfare - depends on where you live. In some states, it's straightforward. In others, like Utah, it is much harder. A recent investigation by ProPublica and the Salt Lake Tribune finds that the state of Utah is only helping about 10% of families living in poverty. The state relies on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, and its own robust welfare program, which has left some people in Utah feeling pressured to join the church to receive any help. ProPublica's Eli Hager is here to talk about his investigation.

Hey there, Eli.

ELI HAGER: Hey. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So help us understand how this works. A state, any state, is required under federal law to provide assistance. And Utah does, but it counts a percentage of the welfare provided by the LDS church towards its own welfare spending.

HAGER: So that's one aspect of the welfare structure in Utah, which is that ProPublica found that there's a memorandum of understanding or an agreement between the state and the LDS church saying that the state is allowed to count or take credit for welfare that the church is providing towards its obligations as a state to support those in poverty. So what that has meant is that over the past decade, the state has gotten out of spending $75 million on poverty that it otherwise would have been required to under federal law.

KELLY: Is that legal? I mean, how does a state count a private program, a church program, as part of its own state welfare spending?

HAGER: Surprisingly enough, it is legal. Several other states count their private charitable spending toward their obligations to spend welfare money as a state. This was made legal under the 1996 welfare reform law signed by then-President Bill Clinton.

KELLY: What happens to the people who are looking to get aid? It sounds like the vast majority of them are having to turn to the church.

HAGER: Right. So this can happen either explicitly or implicitly. Explicitly, sometimes the state literally directs poor people who are denied welfare assistance to the church. Other times it happens implicitly because welfare is so hard to get in Utah. And people feel implicitly forced to go to the church for help because the church is really the largest institution in the state offering aid.

KELLY: So tell us a story of how this has played out for one person that illuminates the system in place there.

HAGER: So in my ProPublica story, I highlighted the story of Danielle Bellamy. She's somebody who is not Mormon herself. And she's going through some serious health problems that have left her in the hospital for weeks at a time, and she's worried about being able to still afford her rent where she and her two daughters live. She tried applying for cash assistance from the state, but they denied her. And she was explicitly instructed by state caseworkers, she says, to go to the church instead. And she went to her local bishop for help. And that's when she was asked to read out loud from the Book of Mormon, watch Mormon videos and set a date to get baptized all in order to get help that she desperately needed to avoid becoming homeless.

KELLY: And, again, she's being asked to do all this. She's not Mormon, you said. Did she get any help?

HAGER: She did get some help from the church, but in her most recent attempt to get help, she was denied because she refused to get baptized as part of a faith that she is not part of.

KELLY: One big issue this raises is that, unlike the government, churches are often allowed to discriminate based on religion. Did your reporting indicate that that is happening in Utah?

HAGER: Correct. They are allowed to constitutionally. To be clear, the LDS church provides a tremendous amount of help to poor people and homeless people across Utah, across the country and really across the world. But there's a term in Utah called bishop roulette, which essentially means depending on the bishop where you happen to live, he might - it's always a man. He might be very generous with aid. Many are. But others might discriminate against, say, single mothers, you know, for having had sex out of wedlock or against LGBTQ people or simply against non-members of the church.

KELLY: What does the church say? Are they good with this arrangement?

HAGER: Well, the church points out, first of all, that they're not a government agency and shouldn't be confused for one in the provision of welfare. So essentially, in their view and in many experts' view, it really falls on the state of Utah to provide a safety net for the poor in that state, not on the church.

KELLY: Eli Hager. His story on the links between social services in the state of Utah and the Mormon Church was published by ProPublica and the Salt Lake Tribune.

Eli Hager, thank you.

HAGER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.