"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
October 23, 2014
Welfare Abuse
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

What do you do when you know that a family is receiving Church welfare assistance, but you also know that they are spending money on frivolities, like expensive new clothing and eating out at nice restaurants?

This is really bothering me.

Answer:

I ran your question past a number of veteran Relief Society presidents, and each one had the same initial response: How do you know this family is receiving assistance?

Welfare needs should always be handled confidentially so as to preserve the privacy and dignity of the people receiving assistance. Handbook 2, section 6.4. It would be highly unusual if you, an uninvolved party, were privy to the assistance provided or the terms of that assistance.

So stop and think about whether you actually know that this family is receiving assistance. Did a reliable member of the family tell you? Did the bishop or Relief Society president tell you? Or did you hear it from a friend? Did you see bishop’s storehouse food at their home and assume that it came from a food order? Did you overhear something in the hall last Sunday and then draw your own conclusion?

If, after you think carefully, it turns out you don’t actually know that this family is receiving assistance, you should keep your suspicions to yourself.

However, perhaps you do know this family is receiving food or financial assistance from the Church. And if you know they are receiving assistance, it is understandable that you are concerned when you see them spending money on items or services that seem frivolous or unnecessary.

To the extent that you are bothered, however, and not merely concerned, I suggest caution. The money you pay as fast offering each month is not yours. No one is accountable to you for how it is spent. Nor should you envy the frivolous goods and services seemingly enjoyed by people who receive welfare assistance.

Instead, be content and grateful that you are able to provide for your own needs. Be glad that you have been able to restrain yourself from making purchases you can’t afford.

Now, as to your immediate question, I’m going to give you three reasons to keep your mouth shut, and then three reasons to go tell the bishop or Relief Society president what you have observed. Let’s start with three reasons to keep your mouth shut.

One, it’s none of your business. How other people spend their money is not your concern, no matter how rich or how poor they are.

You may feel (and you are probably right) that a family who cannot pay for their own groceries or electric bill should not even contemplate new clothing or restaurant meals. But that is not your call. That is the bishop’s call.

It is his job to direct the welfare work in your ward, and he has the Relief Society president, the elders quorum president, the high priest group leader, his counselors, and the ward council to help him. Handbook 2, section 6.2.1. Oversight of the welfare program has not been delegated to you. Nor is it your right to evaluate whether a family is abiding by the terms of the assistance provided to them.

Two, you don’t know the whole story. Always remember that you never really know how much money a person has. Spending, in particular, is often a poor indicator of a person’s financial health.

In your case, this family’s purchases might have an innocent explanation. They may have store credit, gift cards or merchandise to exchange. They may have directed to purchase clothing appropriate for interviews or a new job. The restaurant meals might have been networking or employment interviews. Or they might have been treats from kind friends.

There could also be a more serious explanation. A member of this family might struggle with compulsive shopping or suffer from another problem that is not easily resolved.

Three, the bishop may already know about this family’s spending. It is likely that someone has visited recently with the family and reviewed their financial records with them. If luxury spending was identified in this visit, it would have been discussed and a report would have been made to the bishop.

It is also possible that another ward member has already told him. Or, he might have seen photos online of the family’s evening out.

Those are three solid reasons to keep what you know to yourself and to trust that the people charged with administering the welfare program are doing their jobs and do not need your assistance.

However, there are also very good reasons to tell the bishop or Relief Society president what you have observed about this family’s spending. Each of these reasons is a subpart of this fact: the bishop needs to know, and you may be the only person with the information.

Remember that bishops don’t know everything. They rely on other people to bring them information, especially when it comes to welfare. Handbook 2, section 6.2.4. You have an important piece of information about a welfare situation in your ward, and I can think of at least three reasons your bishop wants to know about it.

First, he needs to know if welfare funds are being misspent. Welfare is intended to provide for basic needs. Handbook 2, section 6.1.1. But because money is fungible, providing food or paying an electric bill allows a family to spend their money on other things.

Your bishop wants to know if money saved on groceries was spent eating out or on a new television instead of on medical bills, the mortgage or other debts.

Second, he needs to know so additional teaching can be provided to this family. The whole point of the Church’s welfare program is to help people become self-reliant so they can, in turn, help others. If a family cannot afford food, it seems axiomatic that they cannot afford nonessential new clothes or dinners out on the town.

If this fact is not apparent to this family, they clearly need additional instruction about self-reliance and how to distinguish needs from wants.

Third, if this family is openly discussing the assistance they have received, the bishop has an interest in making sure that their example does not give other ward members the wrong idea about the Church’s welfare program.

It simply will not do for a sister to express gratitude for receiving free food in one breath, and to show off a her great new skirt in the next. Members who understand the welfare program will instantly see that this sister does not understand the purpose of Church assistance.

But less experienced members may not understand how off-base she is, and they might develop a false idea about or false expectations for the kind of assistance the Church provides.

Finally, after you consider the arguments for and against speaking to someone about this family’s spending, let me suggest a way you might do it. You might approach the Relief Society president privately and say:

“Sister Forbes, I’m a little embarrassed, and I know it’s none of my business, but I have a concern about the Tanger family. The other day, Julie was telling me about the food orders she’s been getting, and how the ward is paying her electric bill.

“But then she pulled out a bag from Fancy Boutique and showed me some clothes she had just purchased. They were on sale, but they were still really expensive. Also, she keeps asking me to meet her for lunch at Café Riche. It all seems incompatible with getting food orders, and I wanted to pass the information along to you. Obviously, this is none of my business. I just thought I’d mention it.”

Then, you let her handle it.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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