August 30, 2005

Poverty Rate Rises to 12.7%

Whoa! …. this just in from the Washington Post … Poverty Rate Rises to 12.7 Percent!

Even with a robust economy that was adding jobs last year, the number of Americans who fell into poverty rose to 37 million - up 1.1 million from 2003 - according to Census Bureau figures released Tuesday. It marks the fourth straight increase in the government's annual poverty measure.

Not good people. Not good at all. This is getting serious!

Argue if you like about what the numbers mean. That seems to be what the usual suspects are doing in predictable fashion, according to the Washington Post article.

But poverty is not good, whether it's 12.7 percent or .07 percent of the population. We need to do something not just argue about it. And by we, I do mean we. All of us.

In their 2002 Statement "A Place at the Table: A Catholic Recommitment to Overcome Poverty and to Respect the Dignity of All God's Children," the US Catholic Bishops used the image of a table as a way to understand the problem of poverty - and its solutions.

A table is a place where people come together to eat, but many people do not find a place at that table and go hungry.

A table is where people meet to discuss and make decisions. I think of the debates we had as a family at Sunday dinner. But many people do not have a place at this table either and have little or no voice in economic or political life.

A table is where we Catholics come together to celebrate the Eucharist so we can go forth to live the Gospel and transform the world. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The Eucharist commits us to the poor" (no. 1397).

The Bishops continue their table analogy by talking about the four legs the table stands on.

1. People like you and me provide for our own families and work to ensure the rights of others.
2. Churches and other community groups help families make good choices, fight injustice and build community.
3. Business and labor act as both engines of growth and contributors to the common good by insuring decent work and wages.
4. Government provides a safety net for the vulnerable, overcomes injustice and addresses problems beyond the reach of the individual and small communities.

With a poverty rate of 12.7% in the United States the table is obviously too small, not enough places are set, and the legs are wobbly and not holding up their end of the bargain.

I suspect that if this figure gets any press, the debate will focus on business doing too much or too little or government doing too much or too little or the need for churches and non profits to do more or for people to pull themselves up by their own boot straps.

The bishops recognize this tendency in their 2002 Statement:

The debate about how to address poverty in the United States and abroad too often focuses on just one of these four foundations and neglects others. While these four elements work together in different ways in different communities, a table may fall without each leg. …

These narrow positions are not our tradition. The Catholic way is to recognize the essential role and the complementary responsibilities of families, communities, the market, and government to work together to overcome poverty and advance human dignity.

I end this post with word from the First Letter of St. John that also close the Bishops' Statement. They say it best:

"If you have more than enough material possessions and see your neighbors in need yet close your hearts to them, how can the love of God be living in you? My children, our love must not be simply words or mere talk – it must be true love, which shows itself in action and truth." -1 John 3: 17-18