We must work to help end poverty

Catholic Courier    |    02.03.2011
Category: From the Bishop


On Feb. 12 and 13, we will hold our annual Public Policy Weekend in the diocese. This important event in our parishes is intended to help Catholics explore and examine problems and possible solutions to social issues that affect us all, and which call us to action because of our Catholic faith.

This year’s topic is "Working out of Poverty." Poverty, sadly, is no stranger to the people of the 12 counties of the Diocese of Rochester, and is a growing and tenacious issue. For example, nearly 42 percent of the children in Rochester and Elmira live in poverty, according to recent data. Lest we think that poverty is an urban issue only: More than 37,000 people live at the poverty level in the suburbs of Rochester, the largest metropolitan area in the diocese.

"Who are the poor?" you might ask. I am indebted to the diocesan Public Policy Committee, chaired by Father Brian Cool, for the following facts:

  • The federal government labels “poor” as any individual living on less than $10,820 a year.
  • Poor families live on less than $22,050 ($1,835/month) for a family with four members. If that family is headed by a single parent who works full time with no days off at a minimum-wage job, he or she will earn $15,080 -- far less than what is needed to survive.
  • Many people live on incomes just barely above the federal poverty level, but are not counted as “poor.”
  • The gap between wealthy Americans and poor Americans is growing larger, both in times of economic boom and recession. For example, from 2001 through 2007, two-thirds of our nation’s total income gain flowed to the highest 1 percent of Americans.
  • Between 2000 and 2005, a period of economic growth in our country, the number of people living in poverty increased by 5.3 million.
  • The rate of extreme poverty (those living at one-half the official poverty level) has risen to an all-time high.
  • Demand for services provided by our wonderful Catholic Charities agencies throughout the diocese has increased dramatically, especially recently in the economic downturn.
  • Many low-income workers could not continue working without child-care subsidies and transportation assistance.

Yet, all of us know, the poor are not "numbers" and statistics. They are our neighbors and they live amongst us everywhere, even in seemingly affluent areas; indeed, there are almost as many poor children living in the suburbs as there are in urban areas. The most persistent and prevalent poverty in our country is found in remote rural areas. Shockingly, almost half of all Americans will have experienced poverty for a year or more at some point in their lives by the time they reach age 60.

As part of our public-policy advocacy, we hope to not only educate Catholics about these issues so that they can be both better informed and stirred to action, but also continue to encourage our state lawmakers to minimize state budget cuts for programs serving the needy. We know that legislators face tough decisions, but we ask that they give high priority to those programs that help people work, especially child-care and transportation subsidies.

I need not tell you that, from the very beginnings of our faith, the church has worked to help the poor. Jesus reached out in innumerable ways to those in need, and called us to do the same. Love and service to our neighbor are foundational beliefs of Christians.

Yet charity and love, while absolutely crucial, are not enough. We have a moral obligation to change the structures, economic and social, that create the incongruity of the richest nation on earth shot through with such pernicious and growing poverty. We must do this not only because our faith calls us to do it, but also because the obligations of good citizenship require it. As citizens, we pay an enormous price for poverty, through taxes and demands for social, medical, protective and other services. Our communities are sorely strained to deal with this situation, and thus are less stable financially than they might otherwise be. All of us are affected.

I do hope you will take the time to participate in any programs or resources your parish makes available on Public Policy Weekend, and take part as well in any of the many suggested activities you can engage in to help with this critical issue.

For more information, I invite you to visit the diocesan website, www.dor.org, and click on "Public Policy."

Peace to all.

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