photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Walking in the Shoes of Those in Need

With over 46 million Americans living in poverty, it is a critical piece of our work to be able to internalize the struggles of our brothers and sisters in need as we continue our work to end poverty. If we take the time to put ourselves in their shoes, we gain the empathy we need and a deeper understanding for how to truly help.

A couple weeks ago, prior to the National Poverty Summit, I participated in a poverty simulation, where each attendee was required to put themselves in the shoes of someone struggling to get by. For two hours I was immersed in a life of poverty, living as a father of two who had recently been laid off. I was skeptical as to how much impact two hours could really have in conveying the reality of poverty, but even in that short time, I could feel my stress level rising as I tried to navigate the bureaucracy of government programs, apply for jobs, and help my children stay in school. It was truly an eye-opening experience.

Growing up, I sometimes found it hard to internalize the day-to-day barriers that those struggling just to get by had to face. Sure, times were sometimes tough, but I was blessed to have parents who were almost always able to make ends meet, to put food on the table and provide a roof over our heads. I suspect that many of us had a somewhat similar experience, making it hard to comprehend the daily reality that those living at or below the poverty line have to face.

The participants in the simulation came from diverse backgrounds with one thing in common: a commitment to understanding and reflecting on the experiences of the poor. We all came away with a deeper understanding of the frustrations, red tape, and obstacles preventing our brothers and sisters in need from achieving self-sufficiency and a better life.

That powerful experience stayed with me through the next couple of days as I attended the second annual National Poverty Summit, where my friend and nationally-syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne spoke about our call as faithful citizens to remember the poor and marginalized in this election cycle. We also heard remarks from researchers from the Urban Institute and the University of Notre Dame, who stressed the importance of reliable data and collaboration in measuring the effectiveness of innovative programs.

Each speaker challenged us to discuss the experiences and needs of the poor with friends and foes alike, with our co-workers and Members of Congress – no audience too big or too small. I hope you’ll join me in bringing a heightened awareness of the reality facing over 46 million Americans. Take a minute to put yourself in the shoes of those who struggle to put food on the table for their families or find a job that pays a living wage. I promise you – you won’t look at your blessings the same way again.