In 1832, Joseph Smith received a revelation instructing him to maintain storehouses of supplies for widows and orphans who could not care for themselves. Church members were instructed to contribute to the needs of the poor, but in the Lord’s own way.
In 1936, as church leaders struggled to figure out how to help ease member suffering due to the Great Depression, the modern Mormon welfare program was created. This program, now 75 years old, has developed into an extensive program that cares for basic needs while helping recipients become self-sufficient.
“The real long-term objective of the welfare plan is the building of character in the members of the Church, givers and receivers, rescuing all that is finest down deep inside of them, and bringing to flower and fruitage the latent richness of the spirit, which after all is the mission and purpose and reason for being of this Church” —President J. Reuben Clark.
Mormon welfare differs in many ways from traditional government programs. This particular program is generally given to members of the Church. There are additional programs that serve people who are not Mormon and programs that benefit only Mormons mean that members do not draw from the government or other charities, leaving more for those without such programs in their own churches or who do not belong to a church.
It begins with preparation for hard times. Mormons are asked to store a supply of food and supplies, as well as to avoid debt and to build their savings. This is not to prepare for a doomsday scenario, but simply to help members be as self-reliant during normal hard times as possible. Every day, Mormons use these preparations to get through unemployment, snowstorms, and illnesses that make shopping difficult.
If the family encounters financial difficulties, they reduce their spending and try to live within their resources. However, on occasion, their preparations can’t get them through the problems, as in an extended unemployment or serious illness. They turn first to family, since family members help each other out. Then, if they have no family that can help, they turn to the Church for assistance. The church does not hand out cash, but does assist with food and essential bills.
The member meets with his bishop (a lay pastor) to determine his needs and to be certain he has cut his bills as far as possible. Then they work out a plan to make sure he has what he needs. The member offers to do some additional volunteer work for the church, which allows him to feel he is contributing to his welfare, an opportunity that is very important to a Mormon’s self-esteem. Mormons love to give, but find it harder to receive. Working maintains their self-respect and increases their self-sufficiency. The work does not equal the help they are receiving, but it is a contribution.
Food is given out at the Bishop’s storehouse. The person is given a list of the foods the storehouse offers. (The Mormons grow, can, or buy what they need rather than relying on donated foods.) He marks what he needs and the bishop approves or adapts it, since many ask for too little and a few ask for more than they need. This portion is sometimes done with the Relief Society president, the female head of the women’s auxiliary. Then the order is taken to the storehouse where the member fills it with the help of a volunteer. Usually, the member helps out for an hour or so before filling his order, so the person assisting may well be another recipient who understands the member’s plight.
These services are paid for through a unique program called Fast Offerings. The first Sunday of each month, everyone who can safely do so goes without food for twenty-four hours (two meals). This is a complete fast without any food or drink. Fasting is a Biblical practice that brings people closer to God. However, at the end of the fast, those who fasted donate at least the cost of the meals and snacks they didn’t have to the Fast Offering. This way, they are not taking more out of their budget, but they are helping the poor. By being hungry for just one day a month, they can help other avoid everyday hunger. Knowing they have given this gift of love to others makes it easier for them when they find themselves in need.
Leftover foods are donated to community food banks. The Church also donates the use of its canneries to other non-profits that feed the hungry.
The Church also operates a humanitarian relief program that helps people of all faiths, or no faith, around the world. They often work in conjunction with other humanitarian groups and recipients often do not know the help came from Mormons. No religious proselytizing is done in this program, so people aren’t required to hear a sermon or become Mormon to receive it.
The well-known Helping Hands program is another aspect of Mormon welfare. This is a program in which volunteers head into areas affected by natural disasters to assist in cleanup and relief efforts. Volunteers are recruited from congregations close enough to reach the area and most volunteer every weekend for several months, until the work is done.
In addition, local congregations and auxiliaries carry out their own programs of service. These are seldom recorded anywhere. The funds listed for the humanitarian program represent only that program, not the many others that are carried out world-wide, both for members and non-members.