May 2, 2014

Faith, Hope and Charity / David Siler

Bringing a renewed hope to the war on poverty

David SilerThis past year marked the 50th anniversary of what was dubbed “The War on Poverty.” This theme reminded me of a quote that I read by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who once said, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

I submit that as we enter the next 50 years with a desire to reduce the number of people suffering from poverty, we do so with a positive approach about what we really intend to do rather than what we intend to fight. What if instead of waging a war on poverty we would initiate a campaign to create prosperity?

It may just be semantics, but I wonder if taking a positive approach may change the conversation and the strategies in such a way as to yield the true results that we seek. Much has been written about this 50-year war, but by most accounts, we are losing—big time.

To demonstrate one way that this “creation” mentality can be a game-changer, let’s consider what has been called by social scientists “The Success Sequence.” The sequence essentially says that if an individual follows three norms in order—completes high school, gets a job, gets married and then starts a family—this individual will have a 2 percent chance of being poor.

When only one or two of these norms is followed, the chance of poverty increases to 27 percent, and when zero norms are followed, the chance of poverty is 76 percent (based on U.S Census Bureau data from 2007).

So if we want to create prosperity, we need to direct our energies, efforts and social policies to encourage people to follow “The Success Sequence.” Of course, as Catholics, we need to do it in a way that honors our Catholic values, including respecting the dignity of the human person. For instance, we need to continue efforts to teach young men to have the proper respect for young women. We also need to continue to stress the blessing of getting married before the blessing of having children.

We know that prosperity happens when we invest in people—particularly in their education and job training. At Catholic Charities, we know from our experience working with people in the most extreme circumstances of poverty that by helping them to increase their level of education and receive training that prepares them for work, they will find their way out of their downward spiral. At the same time, they will feel a deep sense of pride and find their human dignity.

There’s no doubt that we will always need a safety net to catch people in dire circumstances or for the permanently disabled, but the majority of us need a trampoline. I suggest that we focus on the springs of the trampoline—those elements that propel people in an upward direction.

I believe that much more creativity and enthusiasm will accompany a renewed way of approaching poverty.

To share your ideas about creating prosperity, send an e-mail to

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

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