photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

The Devastating Reality of Poverty

Last month the Census Bureau  released its report on poverty in America in 2010 and revealed what we at Catholic Charities know all too well: poverty in our nation is rising, fast.  In 2010 the poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 and 11.3 percent in 2000.

These are not just statistics. There are real lives behind those numbers. More than 46 million Americans were deemed officially “poor” last year, almost three million more than in 2009; 20.5 million Americans live below 50 percent of the government’s poverty threshold – which is about $5,570 per year. Twice as many of our fellow countrymen and women are living in desperation than ten years ago.

Since the financial crisis began, the number of Americans coming to Catholic Charities for help with their basic needs – housing, food, prescriptions – has risen from 8.5 million in 2008 to 10.3 million in 2010. This is the grim reality of poverty in America today. Yet there is a growing mindset that poor people don’t deserve government help.  They should see what we see.

When you put a face on poverty, when you see more and more people who are losing jobs and homes and are hungry, you have a different perspective.  You realize that for us to move forward as a nation we must reduce the number of people living in poverty and repair the systems that are causing more to slip from the middle class into conditions they could not have imagined five years ago.  It is a moral issue our nation is obliged to address. Why don’t we?

There are many reasons, but one of them is a growing negative attitude towards poor people, e.g., “they are lazy,” “they should work harder.” David Brooks explored in his New York Times column last week, “The Limits of Empathy:”

Empathy orients you toward moral action… The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering… but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost.

Empathy, he argues, is insufficient:

People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.

We are well aware that we can’t always depend on how people feel to create needed change. That is why commonly held principles are essential for a society to exist. As Americans we look to the Constitution and its charge to provide for the general welfare. As people of faith our sacred code is rooted in Scripture: “Love your neighbor.”  As Brooks’ would say, our code “isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy.”

Pope Benedict XVI, addressing the global economic crisis in Caritas in Veritate, reminds us what it means to love our neighbor. Our future, he says, “depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family” and not just individuals who happen to live next to each other.   I mean no offense to the Holy Father, but this is nothing new. This passage from Deuteronomy dates back thousands of years:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.

We know many people are anxious about our economy and its potential impact on their lives. But we urge them to open their hearts, lend a hand, and help us reverse the devastating reality of poverty that cripples too many in our American family.  We act out of faith. We pursue our mission with joy and hope.  Because no matter how hard we try to ignore their demands, charity and justice together are the two feet of discipleship.