March 30, 2007

Be Our Guest / Father Larry Snyder

We need to cut poverty in half to make our country whole

Four years ago, Anita Crawley never would have imagined that she would become a face of poverty in America.

After 12 years of working at a good-paying job at a Tennessee hospital, she was laid off when her position was changed to require a college degree. And after she enrolled in college classes, her daughter was hit by a car and hospitalized.

In no time at all, she had gone through all of the money she had saved, borrowed from her 401k and was broke.

Government public assistance helped, and a Catholic Charities welfare-to-work program helped her find a job. But the $21,000 salary doesn’t cover the needs of her family—but it’s enough to cut off her government benefits.

“I have tried to take some steps forward, but so many things are holding me back,” she recently told a congressional committee. “We are fighting hard and playing by the rules, but are still struggling—and any small emergency can push us further into poverty.”

We like to think of America as the land of plenty—a country with living standards so high that others wish to emulate our success.

But this is not the America seen by Anita Crawley and more than 37 million others who are living in poverty, many of them working hard, playing by the rules, but falling further and further behind.

That’s why Catholic Charities USA has launched a new initiative to cut America’s poverty rate in half by 2020.

But this is more than a cause for Catholic Charities; our Campaign to Reduce Poverty on America is a call to action for each of us.

Catholic social teaching says that evidence of extreme poverty amid plenty is a serious violation of moral values and a threat to the common good of society. Poverty is a moral and social wound that hurts all when it hurts one.

As the book of Sirach reminds us: “Remember the time of hunger in the time of plenty, poverty and want in the day of wealth” (Sir 18:25).

These times of hunger and poverty are impacting a growing number of people. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of people living in poverty in our country increased by 5.4 million. Anita Crawley and her family are among the faces behind this sobering statistic.

So are Stephanie Baldwin and her son, who were homeless until Catholic Charities of Trenton, N.J., put them into a transitional housing program that gave her a chance to go back to school and work part time while her son attended preschool.

She now has a job, but the cost of living still far exceeds her income, an example of the lack of affordable housing for those struggling at the lower end of the income scale.

Our campaign to cut poverty in half is urging our elected leaders to ensure that the poor are a priority in making decisions about government policies and spending.

Pope John Paul II wrote that the government must provide for the defense and preservation of human needs and the common good, and our Catholic social teaching holds that government has an obligation to give priority to the poor.

Our campaign seeks to give voice to those living in poverty so that those elected to government posts are reminded of this obligation as they consider legislation on critical issues such as housing, hunger, access to health care and economic justice. All of these issues are going to be debated in Congress in the weeks and months ahead as decisions are made on a minimum-wage increase, nutrition assistance, homeless programs, housing and child health insurance programs.

We need others to add their voices to this call for change and get involved in this campaign. We call on all people of goodwill to endorse our Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America by visiting

“Poverty is a plague against which humanity must fight without cease,” Pope Benedict XVI said in a public audience 16 months ago.

We must heed the pope’s call to action. Together, we can lift each other up. Only together can we begin to change the face of poverty in America, to provide help and to offer hope.

Join us in this cause. Let’s work to cut the poverty rate in half—and make our country whole.

(Father Larry Snyder is president of Catholic Charities USA.) †

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