Thousands of New Orleans residents fled the city when Hurricane Katrina began bearing down on the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Thousands more were unable to evacuate because they did not have the financial means or the transportation to do so.
About 25 percent of the residents of Orleans Parish — which encompasses New Orleans — were living below the federal poverty line in 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of these people were stranded when Hurricane Katrina struck and, in many cases, perished in the resulting floodwaters or were trapped for days without adequate food, water and shelter.
The faces of New Orleans’ poor were suddenly in the spotlight, thanks to massive media coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath, noted an article on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Web site (www.usccb.org).
“For many, it is a rude awakening. Few knew that so many families and individuals in this wealthiest of nations would be unable to evacuate in an emergency because they lacked the wherewithal to simply get out of town and temporarily relocate someplace else,” observed the article by Albany Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, chairman of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development Committee.
Poverty in America
New Orleans is far from the only part of America where poverty exists. According to recent data from the Census Bureau, Buffalo, with 25.9 percent of its residents below the poverty line, is much like pre-Katrina New Orleans. Reporting about the Katrina disaster simply highlighted what many people working in charities and human services already knew: Poverty is a huge problem in our country.
“It kind of laid bare for the whole world to see that in this country of unparalleled resources … we still have people living in blighted conditions,” Bishop Hubbard said in an interview with the Catholic Courier.
During 2005, 37 million Americans — or 12.6 percent of the population — were living in poverty, according to Census data. While the poverty rate did not increase between 2004 and 2005, it has gone up since 2000, when it was 11.3 percent.
At 17.6 percent, the poverty rate among children is higher than that of any other group. Out of every six children is living in poverty, Bishop Hubbard noted. Approximately 11 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 64 and 10 percent of those over 65 are living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. About 12.9 million U.S. children, 20.5 million adults and 3.6 million senior citizens are living in poverty.
More than one out of every three Americans lives below the poverty line for at least two months out of the year, and 15.6 million people are classified as living in severe poverty, with incomes below half of the poverty line, according to the USCCB’s Poverty USA Web site.
While some Americans are becoming wealthier and enjoying higher standards of living, others are suffering, Bishop Hubbard said. The gap between the poor and the rich or comfortable seems to be broadening, noted Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research for Rochester’s Catholic Family Center.
“The economy seems to be dividing into those who do really well and those who are struggling and are kind of left behind,” he said. “It’s a disgrace.”
What exactly does it mean to live in poverty?
According to the Census Bureau, people are living in poverty if their incomes fall below a certain threshold, called the poverty line. This threshold varies depending on the size of a family and the ages of the family’s members. The government sets 48 different thresholds, each of which includes the calculated measure of need — or amount of money needed to meet basic needs — for a family of that size. The also thresholds also vary depending on the ages of a family’s members.
These thresholds do not take geographic location into account, but they are updated annually to account for inflation. They were originally developed by the federal Office of Management and Budget in the mid-1960s, and they’re used by federal agencies, such as the Census Bureau, in their statistical work.
To determine if a family is living in poverty, officials total each family member’s gross income. This figure includes not only job earnings, but also unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation and Social Security benefits, veterans’ payments and any other sources of income for the family. Such non-cash benefits as food stamps and housing subsidies are not included in the total.
The total is then matched with what has been determined as an appropriate threshold for the family’s size and members’ ages. If the total is less than the threshold, the family is considered to be living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.
Using this formula, a family of four with an income of just over $19,000 is considered impoverished, according to the Poverty USA Web site.
Advocates say this formula is not always a true indicator of poverty, however. In Rochester, for example, a family of four would probably need about $30,000 to meet its basic needs, Mich said.
“It’s an inadequate measurement, but it’s the way that’s being used,” Mich said.
This formula is the official statistical measure of poverty in America, but government-aid programs are not required to use it. Many use a different set of guidelines developed by the Department of Health and Human Services. These guidelines do not take an individual’s age into account, but they do take geographic location into account, with separate guidelines for people living in Alaska and Hawaii.
Many people have stereotypical images of what poor people look like or how they act, but many of these are inaccurate, officials say.
“We always think of these homeless men under the bridge, but there are families that are in poverty,” said Shelley Borysiewicz, media-relations manager for Catholic Charities USA. If a family is teetering on the edge of financial instability, she noted, one stroke of misfortune can thrust them into poverty.
“One huge health-care bill, if you don’t have health insurance, can wipe you out,” Borysiewicz said.
“Unfortunately there are a number of working families who still find themselves in the low-income bracket, and at the end of the month can’t stretch their paycheck enough to afford basic necessities,” Bishop Hubbard said.
One of the biggest causes of poverty is the lack of a living wage, Mich said. A minimum wage is not the same thing as a living wage, and an individual may be working full time at a low-paying job but still not making enough to live on.
“Two-thirds of the poor are already working, but they aren’t making enough to lift themselves above the poverty level,” he said.
Although national media attention focused on New Orleans’ poor in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, this focus was short-lived, noted Bishop Hubbard, who said he had been hoping the attention would ignite a widespread desire to work for change and a national debate about how to eliminate poverty.
“I’m very disappointed,” he said, noting that other controversial topics, such as the war in Iraq, seem to be occupying the nation’s focus instead.
Although the national spotlight appears to have been switched off, many Catholic agencies are doing their part to highlight the plight of the poor. The USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development recently awarded nearly $9 million in grants to 326 projects working to eliminate the root causes of poverty in this country. The program also seeks to educate the community about the realities of poverty by maintaining the Poverty USA Web site (www.povertyusa.org), which contains eye-opening facts and statistics about poverty.
Meanwhile, Catholic Charities USA recently placed poverty at the top of its agenda for this year, Borysiewicz said. The agency is in the process of finalizing a public-policy paper titled “Poverty in America: A Threat to the Common Good,” which looks at the agency’s commitment to serving the needy and lays out several specific public-policy proposals, which will be the foundation of its future advocacy and outreach efforts. A draft of the paper can be found at the agency’s Web site, www.catholiccharitiesusa.org.
Locally, the Diocese of Rochester’s Public Policy Committee has identified “children at risk” — including children in poverty — as its major advocacy issue for 2006-07.
Catholics have a responsibility to live in solidarity with and care for their brothers and sisters in need, Bishop Hubbard said. According to the Gospel and Catholic social teaching, Jesus calls his followers to care for the least among them, he added.
This principle of Catholic social teaching is called “the preferential option for the poor.” Although the name can be confusing, the principle’s meaning is fairly easy to understand, noted Mich, who has written a book about Catholic social teaching.
“It’s not like it’s something optional, but it’s the notion of choosing to see how the decisions we make could affect the poor,” he said.
Responding to the needs of the poor is an essential part of what it means to be Catholic, and this teaching encourages Catholics to examine the ways they use their money and the effect it has on others, especially the poor, agreed Mich and Father Kevin McKenna, pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in Irondequoit and author of several books on Catholic social teaching.
The preferential option for the poor is really a wonderful opportunity to exercise Christian charity, Father McKenna said. Everyone on earth shares God’s gifts, so everyone should be sensitive to the rights of the poor and work to promote those rights.
“Maybe it starts by saying, ‘Will this have a negative impact on the poor?'” Father McKenna said.
This principle can be applied to everyone from individuals spending their extra money to world leaders deciding which nations to trade with, he added.
Learning more about poverty — through such resources as the Poverty USA Web site and Catholic Charities’ policy paper — is another good way to begin to act in solidarity with the poor, Borysiewicz said.
“Once (people) are more knowledgeable, they can identify a particular issue or facet of poverty that they are passionate about,” she said.
An individual might decide, for example, that he or she is particularly interested in hunger, homelessness, education or health care. After learning more about a particular issue, he or she can do more research to find out how the community is responding to the issue.
“And then they can make a choice of how they want to get involved, whether it is to volunteer, donate or advocate,” Borysiewicz said. “There are many ways to make a difference, whether it is direct service or helping to change the structures that prevent people from lifting themselves out of poverty.”
Oftentimes, ministries and outreach programs offered by Catholic Charities agencies, parishes and the community are looking for volunteers and provide a good place to make a difference, Bishop Hubbard said.
Once people become involved in a particular effort, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen or mentoring at a school, they can begin to make connections and form relationships with the people they serve, Mich said. This usually leads to a better understanding of poverty and a stronger desire to change the situation.
“It takes (poverty) out of the statistics and helps you understand how difficult it is for people who don’t have the resources to make it,” Mich said.
Poverty, hunger affect billions around globe
Billions of people worldwide are caught in poverty’s grip. There are approximately 6.4 billion people in the world, and about 1.2 billion of them are considered to be living in poverty, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program.
Many of these impoverished people struggle daily to afford such basic necessities as food; poverty is one of the main causes of hunger worldwide, according to the WFP.
More than 850 million people around the world are suffering from hunger and poverty, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. One in seven people worldwide and approximately 815 million people in more than 70 developing nations are going hungry, according to the FAO. In these nations, it’s not unusual for 30 percent of the population to be suffering from hunger.
India alone has more than 221 million undernourished people, while sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 203 million hungry people, according to the WFP. There are 519 million hungry people in Asia and the Pacific region, and more than 142 million hungry in China. There are nearly 53 million undernourished people in Latin America and the Caribbean, and another 33 million undernourished people in the Near East.
Each year, 10 million people die of hunger and hunger-related diseases, the WFP notes, and only 8 percent of these are victims of high-profile disasters, droughts and wars.
While the United States undergoes what some call an “epidemic” of childhood obesity, elsewhere in the world an estimated 167 million children under the age of 5 are underweight as a result of acute or chronic hunger, according to the WFP. In the United States, many women struggle with self-image and eating disorders, while seven out of 10 of the world’s hungry are women and girls.
Many Catholic international agencies work tirelessly to ease the plight of the poor around the globe, especially in developing nations. Among these agencies are Catholic Relief Services, the official international relief and development agency of U.S. Catholics, and Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development and social-services organizations.