June 26, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Poverty and its destructive influence on family life

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

In his book, Think and Act Anew: How Poverty in America Affects Us All and What We Can Do about It, Father Larry Snyder, former president of Catholic Charities USA, draws upon the experience of Catholic Charities workers throughout the country to explain that individuals and families are poor if they cannot:

  • afford housing that is clean, safe, and in good repair;
  • provide nutritious food for themselves and their family on a regular basis;
  • consistently pay their utility bills even though it is a priority;
  • adequately clothe their children for school with clean clothes that fit and are in good repair, and they do not have proper clothing for work; or,
  • afford to go to the doctor for any kind of illness for fear that the visit will be beyond their means to pay for it.

Many Hoosier families live in these circumstances. Poverty is especially hard on individuals who are responsible for others, including spouses, children, elderly or infirm parents or siblings. In fact, poverty is destructive of family life.

In our pastoral letter, Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana, we bishops write:

“As pastors, we witness the struggle that young families, especially single-parent families, have breaking out of the cycle of poverty in order to provide food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care for their children. Finding (and keeping!) good jobs is much more difficult for teenage parents, especially if they are not married, because they frequently lack the necessary education, skills and experience to compete in today’s job market. Add to this handicap the costs associated with transportation and health care, and the challenges can be overwhelming.

“In addition, as the number of underage and single-parent families continues to grow, the number of fathers who are unable or unwilling to support their children also increases. Strong marriages and healthy families provide an environment that can help overcome the most severe economic challenges. Unfortunately, the stress of economic instability, substance abuse and domestic violence, combined with other social and cultural factors, contributes to the disintegration of marriages, disrupts stable families and often results in substance abuse and other addictive behaviors.”

The struggles faced by all families today regardless of their age, race, social status or religious preference are serious. Add to these cultural obstacles the harsh realities of poverty, and the difficulties can seem insurmountable.

As we note in our pastoral letter:

“Our society today permits—even encourages—behavior that works against a healthy family life. Consumerism can promote reckless spending and unsustainable debt. Promiscuity is fueled by attitudes that disrespect the beauty of human sexuality and the sanctity of marriage and family life. All segments of our society suffer from the effects of cultural and economic threats to the health and vitality of families, but the poor, especially multigenerational poor, are especially vulnerable to negative social and economic influences that undermine family life. It has even been said that stable marriages are increasingly the luxury of the rich.”

We stand for marriage, which we recognize as the union of one man and one woman, and we are determined to strengthen the family as the most basic unit of human society and of the Church.

But our commitment to marriage and family life is only talk if we don’t also commit ourselves to helping the poor. Poverty is not the only threat to family life, but it is probably the most pervasive, destructive influence on families day in and day out. Poverty attacks all of the things that provide safety and stability to families. Its effects are spiritual as well as material, causing families to feel abused, hopeless and unwanted in the land of plenty that surrounds them throughout the state of Indiana that is their home.

Poverty at the Crossroads calls attention to the essential interrelationship between stable, healthy families and societies that are supportive and life-giving.

“To address the long-term effects of poverty in our society, we must strengthen marriage and family life. … When families are strong, society is strong. When families are broken and unstable, all human communities suffer. At the same time, we recognize that instability of marriage and family life is intensified by poverty, which can produce an intolerable stress that limits human development.”

I invite all Catholics in central and southern Indiana to reflect prayerfully on God’s gift of family life. It’s really pretty simple: When families are strong, society is strong. When families are broken and unstable, we all suffer.

May God bless all families. May his grace strengthen all of us to do what we can to strengthen marriage and family life. May all of us do what we can to help alleviate the devastating effects of poverty on today’s families. †

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