Poor people in Utah are often pressured to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) as a condition of getting food and other forms of assistance, two media outlets have reported.
ProPublica and the Salt Lake Tribune published a joint investigation last month noting that the provision of welfare is heavily entangled with the LDS church, which dominates the state. Because the state makes it very difficult to qualify for welfare, poor people are often told to approach the church for help. Some of them are told they must join before they’ll get aid.
The church runs an extensive welfare program overseen by the lay bishops who run LDS congregations. Pro- Publica and the Tribune reported that individual church officials have wide latitude over how to distribute aid.
The story profiled a woman named Danielle Bellamy, a single mom who struggles with health issues. Denied aid by the state, Bellamy approached church officials. She was told that to get help, she would first have to study LDS scriptures. She cooperated at first but balked when she was pressured to get baptized, saying she did not accept the LDS faith. Church officials then cut off her assistance.
ProPublica and the Tribune reported that only about 3,000 families get welfare in Utah, while an estimated 30,000 live in poverty.
The media outlets reported, “Utah doesn’t do more for those in need in part because a contingent of its lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latter-day Saints themselves, assume the church is handling the poverty issue; they also are loath to raise taxes to do the state’s share, a review of Utah’s legislative history demonstrates.”
Under federal law, states are required to spend a certain amount of money every year to combat poverty. The government of Utah has an arrangement with the LDS church whereby church efforts are included in that figure.
David Smurthwaite, a former LDS bishop, was critical of the church-state partnership, arguing that it gives too much power to church leaders.
Church bishops, he said, are “not professional welfare providers, not professional therapists, yet we get put in the hot seat for these kinds of experiences.”