Americans are struggling with stagnant wages, rising debts and increased expenses during these tough economic times. What happens when a corporate executive loses a job or a family simply can’t make ends meet to put food on the table? What about the refugee who needs to learn English to get a job or the homeless man who wants to get off the streets before winter sets in?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ extensive welfare program is a system unlike any other because it provides temporary relief while at the same time helping people help themselves. The fine-tuned program has been in operation for decades and is run almost entirely by volunteer labor. Although it was primarily established for members of the Church, the program also assists others who are struggling.
Based on the principle of self-reliance, the Church welfare system includes canneries, farms and factories throughout the United States that provide food and commodities for those in need.
In addition, thousands find jobs annually through its employment centers and on-the-job training at Deseret Industries stores. Thousands more add to their own home food storage to prepare for a rainy day.
Charlene Cummings from Leonardtown, Maryland, learned firsthand how the Church welfare system can change lives. Charlene dealt with abuse as a child and struggles with a diagnosed mental illness, but she recently moved from a supervised living group to her own apartment. Charlene credits much of her newly discovered ability to function independently to the watchful care she receives from her friends at church.
In Charlene’s situation, local members of the Church taught her financial management skills, including budgeting and savings. Because she’s diabetic, members assisted Charlene with menu planning, shopping and other areas involved in managing her illness. When times were really challenging in her life, the Church provided both financial and food assistance to help Charlene bridge the gaps in her personal income. “The Church has become the family I’ve never had; they’ve taught me things I’d never learned,” Charlene explained.
Mormons are counseled, as a part of Church practice, to develop such independence and self-reliance.
“We teach self-reliance as a principle of life, that we ought to provide for ourselves and take care of our own needs,” suggested late Church leader Gordon B. Hinckley. “And so we encourage our people to have something, to plan ahead, keep a little food on hand, to establish a savings account, if possible, against a rainy day. Catastrophes come to people sometimes when least expected: unemployment, sickness, and things of this kind. The individual, as we teach, ought to do for himself all that he can do for himself.”
Another aspect of these teachings is the need to stock basic foodstuffs in case of any type of emergency. The Church operates over a hundred regionally located storehouses and home storage centers to help members gather their food storage. Other plants process specific food items, such as the peanut butter plant in Houston, Texas.
In addition, many Mormons grow and can some of their own food supplies. Paula Henderson of Raleigh, North Carolina, cultivates an urban garden of about 625 square feet in her yard. From the harvest of fruits and vegetables her garden produces, Paula makes pesto and pickles, cans or dries tomatoes and roasts peppers. “Last fall, after the freeze,” Henderson explained, “I gathered all the green tomatoes, put them in the garage and used them as they ripened all winter. I didn’t buy any tomatoes until March.”
Paula’s experience illustrates one of the practical concepts of the welfare plan: utilize all available resources many ways, adopting a lifestyle of economy or provident living.
The concepts of provident living and caring for the less fortunate have been primary objectives of the Church from the very beginning. Based on the Christian principles taught in the scriptures, Church founder Joseph Smith reached out to immigrants, widows and orphans, providing them with sustenance in their stretched circumstances. Brigham Young, another early Church leader, established a Perpetual Emigration Fund to assist newly converted Mormons in their travels to the Utah territory. The fund, repaid to the Church when the recipients were financially able, circulated to help other traveling families.
Such hand-to-hand concern for others continued during the settling of the frontier lands, but gained additional attention during the Great Depression years of the 1930s. Strained financial situations, unemployment and overall discouragement led Church leaders to implement a more formal application of the self-reliance concepts.
In 1936, then-Church President Heber J. Grant announced “that the gospel plan not only takes care of our spiritual needs, but our temporal needs as well. Our primary purpose is to set up a system … under which the curse of idleness will be done away with, the evils of the dole abolished, and independence, thrift and self-respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help people help themselves.” A system of work projects and storehouses was then set up that bridged the unemployment gaps of the time and provided for the immediate needs of Church families.
Such a system endures today, a two-way system where one helps another in need and they both benefit. “If you build self-reliance in people,” noted Dennis Lifferth, managing director of the Church’s welfare program, “everybody grows; it is the essence of the welfare plan. Lives can be changed by personal interest and attention.”