March 20, 2015

Reflection / Sharon Burns

Who are the poor?

(Editor’s note: Indiana’s bishops last week issued a pastoral letter on poverty. This column continues discussing the challenges the poor face in our state.)

Did you see the woman at the end of the exit ramp with a sign, “will work for food?” Has a family member recently found their car battery dead and not have the money to get a new one? Perhaps a co-worker could not refill their parent’s prescription because it was just too expensive. Or maybe the child in the checkout lane was wearing only a windbreaker when the weather called for a down-filled jacket.

The most significant myth about poverty is that the poor are “over there.” In reality, the poor live among us. If we really “see” the lives of our family, friends and colleagues, we will notice that many experience economic distress. These periods of need may be occasional or short-lived, the result of health or employment downturns. For some, poverty will be an ongoing hallmark of their lives because they suffer from severe mental or health issues.

Poverty is not clearly defined. Because it is often situational, we must consider a variety of definitions that may guide us to appropriate ways to respond.

The federal government defines poverty based on income and family size. The poverty guideline varies by income and the number of people in the family.

For example, the poverty level for a family of four is $24,250. A single person is considered poor if he makes less than $11,770 each year. The federal poverty guideline is a “bright line” measure. One is either in or out of poverty. All families with incomes below the poverty guideline are treated the same, regardless of how deep in poverty they are.

Receipt of benefits such as Supplemental Security Income, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is dependent upon meeting these income criteria. Many benefits have criteria that allow a family to make a multiple of the federal poverty guideline—usually 1.5 to two times the federal poverty level.

For statistical purposes, the federal government uses a measure called a “poverty threshold.” The poverty threshold is also based on income and family size. The poverty threshold for a family will usually be slightly greater than the poverty guideline.

The federal poverty guideline is considered a poor indicator of economic struggle by many researchers, social service providers and advocates. Many families earn income above the guideline but still struggle to buy the basics of food, shelter, child care and transportation.

An alternative measure of poverty is called a self-sufficiency wage. It equals the hourly wage required for a family to buy basic life necessities. It does not include the cost of health care, clothing, personal care or entertainment—no eating out, no sports clubs, no cable television.

Income is not the only measure of economic struggle. While families may have a job that pays more than the federal poverty level or even greater than the self-sufficiency wage, they may not have any savings to pay for unexpected bills.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, those whose income places them in the lowest 20 percent of earners have an average of $1,397 in non-housing net worth, and $300 of this is in interest bearing accounts. How does a low-earning family pay an unexpected insurance deductible or replace a flat tire? Consider how important a working car is to get to work, especially in a region without major public transportation systems.

One can’t consider poverty without examining the plight of children. Twenty-two percent of children in Indiana are in poverty. More than 800,000 children in Indiana are enrolled in Medicaid or receive benefits from the Child Health Insurance Program. In Indiana, almost 50 percent of children are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch programs. In the Evansville, Ind., Diocese, these rates range from 31.5 percent to 59.1 percent. They have increased significantly since 2010.

The poor are not only the working poor or those under the age of 65. A great number of our seasoned citizens suffer from economic distress. About 7.9 percent of Indiana seniors are in poverty. On average, a married couple over the age of 65 in the U.S. holds $92,238 in non-residence assets. (Including home equity, married couples own an average of $284,790. Consider, however, that a home produces no income and costs money to operate.) Contrast these amounts with a single, female, older person—she has an average of $8,480 in non-home assets. Single men over age 65 own just a bit over twice the amount of an older, single female.

Poverty cannot be defined by a line in the sand. Rather, it may be a temporary or long-term state of economic distress defined by an inability to provide food, housing, health and other essentials of daily living. Economic distress is experienced by working people as often as those who are unemployed. It is the inability to feel a level of stability about one’s economic situation.

Addressing poverty requires us to offer corporal care for short-term needs while focusing efforts on eliminating the root causes of long-term economic distress: broken families, lack of education and employment opportunities, and mental and physical health care. Our charity and care should be concentrated in these areas in order to reduce economic struggles over generations.

(Sharon Burns is director of both Catholic Charities and the Diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Evansville. To read the Indiana bishop’s poverty pastoral letter in English, go to To read it in Spanish, go to The bishops are asking people to take part in a survey to gather more information that they will use to further address the issue of poverty in Indiana. The survey can be found in English at, and in Spanish at

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