March 1, 2013

Faith, Hope and Charity / David Siler

Understanding poverty and its implications

David SilerJanuary was Poverty Awareness Month in the United States. At Catholic Charities, we are keenly aware every day of the struggles of more and more of our children and families to meet the most basic human needs.

I was appalled recently while listening to a popular radio talk show program when a caller suggested that recipients of welfare be listed in local newspapers so that “the hard-working people can know who they are so that we can shame them into getting their lazy butts off the couch.” Although usually a bit less harsh, I hear this type of sentiment regularly.

Unfortunately, there is very little real understanding of our social welfare system. Most people who have never been on any type of assistance have no idea what it takes to qualify or how much or how long assistance is given.

I will be the first to admit that our system has gross inefficiencies and that reforms are needed, but I would never suggest that we altogether abandon our commitment to the common good in our country. As anyone who has ever received government assistance will tell you, it is not a get-rich-quick scheme or a stream of income that provides anything but a bare-minimum lifestyle.

At Catholic Charities, we work to fill the gaps—and there are many—in the government-administered social welfare system. These supports are not perfect by any means, but they do allow for families to maintain some level of human dignity when they experience a major health crisis, job loss, disabling injury, physical disability or other crises that lead to an inability to earn an income.

I would submit that our social welfare programs—whether public, private or faith-based—need to have both an element that provides a “safety net” to provide for a level of human dignity when necessary, and a “trampoline” to help vault individuals and families permanently out of poverty.

Enhancements to the trampoline aspect of our programs need the greater attention. It is not good for any part of our human family to suffer the many indignities experienced as the result of poverty.

Investments in education, health and well-being, entrepreneurial ventures, job skills training, social skills training and the like are all wise places to focus our financial and human resources that can put the bounce in the trampoline for an individual and his or her family.

The need for a safety net will always exist because there is a segment of the population that will always be dependent—the intellectually or developmentally disabled, for instance.

But the vast majority of people on welfare don’t want to stay there, but do not have the hope or the understanding of how to find their way out. This is where you and I come in.

Jesus told us that we would find him in the poor. They are our responsibility, and it is our privilege to serve.

To learn more about our nation’s welfare system so that you can be educated and to help dispel the many myths that are perpetuated about the poor, go to

And to learn more about the issues of poverty in general and what the Catholic Church is doing about it, go to and

(David Siler is the executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries. E-mail him at

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