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One in six young people live in poverty. Christians are called to help break the cycle of poverty by working with Catholic organizations and following the example of saints such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Martin de Porres.

Youth Update

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Putting a Face
on Poverty

by Alicia Bondanella

Have you ever had an experience of being invisible in a room full of people? Perhaps you were sitting alone in the lunchroom while others were laughing with their friends. Or you were home alone on Friday night because nobody had included you in his or her plans.

Compare your experiences of loneliness and isolation to those of one in six kids who live in poverty in the United States. They are often left out of activities that others enjoy. They can—t afford sports fees or uniforms. Some feel invisible to their teachers who seem to think they will never amount to much. Some are ashamed of their economic situation, so they isolate themselves from others.

Too often, people in poverty are invisible to us. We may live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same schools and parishes, but be unaware of each other—s struggles.

This Youth Update will help you put a face on poverty in the United States and invite you to reflect upon your call as a Christian disciple to break the cycle of poverty. (All statistics you encounter are taken either from the U.S. Census Bureau or from www.povertyusa.org, a Web site of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.)

What Is Poverty?

Definitions matter. As you explore what life is like for people in poverty, it may be helpful to understand what the word poverty means. The U.S. government defines poverty based on the minimum amount of money a family requires to meet its basic needs, such as food and shelter.

In 2002, a family of four was considered poor if they brought home less than $18,100 that year. When one parent works full-time at the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, a family must survive on a little more than $10,000. The government defines that as poverty. You would, too, I think.

In 2003, 34.6 million Americans lived in poverty. That—s one in 10 families. If all the poor people lived in one state, it would be the second largest state, population-wise, in the country. (The largest is California.)

When you try to picture poverty, images of homeless people spring to mind. You might envision children with bowls in their hands or men lying under blankets at the bus stop. Or perhaps you think of shacks in Appalachia.

The state of poverty has many citizens who are difficult to identify. They look a lot like you.

Meet Susan, for instance. (In this Youth Update, names have been changed to protect privacy.) She has a four-year-old son, Jacob. Susan is a young, single mother who couldn—t make ends meet. Because her job skills were limited, she could only earn enough to pay her rent.

Susan learned that she could get job training, food and child-care assistance through the state. Her problem? The child-care subsidies—funds which cover day care—would not arrive until two weeks after she needed to show up for her new job. Susan had a difficult choice: Leave Jacob in a place where he might not be safe—or lose her job.

Jerome, an Ohio teenager, had a different problem. When his mother lost her job, they lost their apartment. She was able to move into a shelter, but she couldn—t take Jerome. (Teen boys are often not allowed to stay in family shelters, because they seem to be a threat to the safety of women and children.) So Jerome, who had broken no laws, had this crazy choice: He could stay at a detention center or live on the streets.

Myths and Realities

Recently, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) surveyed poor people themselves to find out what their lives were like. Take a look at what they say when faced with the myths we often hear about poverty.

Myth: All poor people are homeless.

Real Words: "Rent takes most of your income, utilities the rest." —woman, 65, Louisiana, earning less than $8,860, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says is the "poverty line" for one person. For each additional person, an additional $3,090 is estimated.

Many people who rent apartments or own homes are poor. Often, with a low-wage job and the rising cost of living, families spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. That leaves very little for food, clothes and medicine, let alone anything fun.

Myth: Most poor adults don—t want to work.

Real Words: Being poor means "working for a living and still not able to make ends meet."—married man, 48, Missouri, earning less than $11,940.

Nearly 40 percent of America—s poor over the age of 16 worked either part-time or full-time in 2001—yet could not earn enough to pay for their family—s basic needs. Many work two or three jobs!

Myth: Becoming poor can—t happen to me.

Real Words: "It means I lost life as I knew it."—single man, 36, California, earning less than $8,860.

Financial circumstances change. A medical emergency, the loss of a job or a divorce can leave families unable to pay the bills. In fact, over a two-year period, nearly a third of Americans dipped briefly into poverty.

Break the Cycle

Poverty is a state of life in which no one should live. A life in poverty is not the life that God intended for his people.

Evelyn, a middle-aged mom in a household of seven, with an income of less than $16,000, puts it this way: "Poverty means my children don—t get a good education so they can—t get jobs that pay enough, so the cycle continues."

What do you need to have a secure life? Food, shelter, a good education and a steady income are necessary. When people lack one or more of these essentials, Catholics often respond with an act of charity.

These acts of charity—donations to food banks, working at homeless shelters, giving Christmas presents to poor children—help fill an immediate need. They help people get through one day at a time.

When those tough days turn into weeks and months, it—s a problem that needs a different kind of solution. If someone poor is so weighed down, tired and hungry that he or she can—t see any escape, a temporary drop into poverty can become a long-term situation. People get trapped in a cycle of poverty—like Emily has.

Emily, a teenager born into a poor family, worked after school to help her parents pay the bills. Every day, Emily went to school hungry and tired. She tried hard to stay awake and pay attention. Though Emily is smart and capable, she couldn—t keep up her work and, finally, dropped out of school.

Because she was hungry, she gave up on education. Without an education, she—s less likely to find a job that will provide a living wage and benefits. She has become trapped in the cycle of poverty.

Good-paying jobs, affordable housing, safe streets, good public schools: All these structures are needed for a strong community. When they don—t exist, the entire community can get trapped in a cycle of poverty.

When systems and structures fail people and communities, that is unjust. Injustices call for solutions larger than simple kindness. A one-person, one-day approach will not work.

It is difficult to break the cycle of poverty, but it is possible. The Church looks to justice-based solutions to end poverty and build stronger families and communities.

Susan, the single mother of Jacob, joined others in a Welfare Rights Coalition (WRC) to improve the lives of welfare recipients like herself. The group shares common concerns and insists on changes in welfare policies. Its members want jobs at livable wages and quality child care. Through working with others in this coalition, women like Susan can break the cycle of poverty.

Jerome, who couldn—t find a place with his mom, joined a group called the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP). Through research, training and organizing, homeless youth made their needs known to policy-makers and community leaders. The group influenced the director of one homeless shelter to change its policy about teen boys.

All One Family

Gospel living includes special concern for people living in poverty—to put them first in community decision-making, because they have the greatest need.

Imagine that your brother got sick. What would you do to help him? How would your parent(s) respond? You might change your plans and stay home to keep him company. Maybe your dad would leave work early to take care of him.

Because you love your brother, you and your family put him first in your decision-making. You would do anything to help him get better.

The same is true for our brothers and sisters in the human family. When anyone is suffering, we as Catholics are moved to act on their behalf—to do all we can to alleviate that suffering.

Pope John Paul II, in his address to the Philippine bishops in 2003, described our Church as one "that gives preferential attention to the poor, seeking to share time and resources in order to alleviate suffering. It is a Church that works with all sectors of society, including the poor themselves, in search of solutions to the problems of poverty, in order to free people from lives of misery and want....The Church of the poor is a Church in which the poor are welcomed, listened to and actively involved."

Examples and teaching about concern for the poor are found in every book of the Bible. Your parish probably has resources in place to help people struggling with poverty. You can also look to saints and Christian witnesses as models.

The Church not only speaks on behalf of those in poverty but also stands beside the poor to support them in fighting for their own needs and rights.

Susan and Jerome have shown us—through their actions—that poor people can determine their own solutions. Often it is not our answers, but our resources and our partnerships that are needed to address problems.

When we stand with people in poverty, we need to be careful not to take over. We should not assume that they can—t do for themselves. As a teenager deciding which classes to take and clubs to join, you can probably relate to this need of the poor to make their own decisions about their lives and their communities.

In 1970, the U.S. Catholic bishops created a unique program to help poor and low-income people set their own course out of poverty: the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. It provides grants to groups of low-income people in the U.S. who are changing the structures that cause poverty, such as unjust laws and policies. CCHD also helps to educate Catholics about their role in combating poverty.

Take a Good Look!

Jesus says, "Blessed are your eyes, because they see....Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it" (Matthew 13:16-17).

The poor need not remain invisible. We are called to open our eyes to see those who are poor. With new eyes, you can shape a more just and peaceful nation, a community of Christ—s love.

Many starting points exist for you to build relationships with the poor in your midst. The key is to pick one and begin.

It's January
Focus Your Attention on Poverty

January is Poverty in America Awareness Month. Join with youth and adults across the nation to bring attention to the extent and seriousness of poverty in our country.

‑Get the facts! Read the local section of the newspaper every day for a week. Scan the headlines, keeping a tally of the issues that you see over and over. How do those issues impact people living in poverty? Write a letter to the editor about it.

‑ Who represents you? Who advocates on behalf of poor people in your community? Visit or write such an advocate to ask what is being done to assist people in poverty. (A helpful Web site is http://thomas.loc.gov/home/state.htm).

‑ Make connections. In most dioceses, the bishop appoints someone to oversee efforts that address poverty and other peace and justice issues. Contact the local director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. You can locate the CCHD director online at www.usccb.org/cchd/director.htm.

‑ Reflect and pray! Read the story of Esther and those of the early prophets such as Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Reflect on the life of Jesus in the Gospels. How did he treat those who are vulnerable or invisible? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you use your gifts in service to others.

‑Put your faith into action! Share with your parents something you learned in this Youth Update. Host a teen "lock-in" at which you invite members from a community-based organization to share their experiences of being "locked out" of decent, affordable housing. Become a member of a community-based, self-help project and work together with low-income people to break the cycle of poverty. To find a project in your community, visit www.usccb.org/cchd/02fund.htm.

‑ Surf the Net. Visit www.povertyusa.org, where you can take a tour of the "Forgotten State: Poverty USA." Find activities, books and lessons to use with all age groups at the education center. Take the pledge to help break the cycle of poverty. E-mail your friends and encourage them to visit the Poverty USA Web site too.

‑ Get creative. Explore solutions to poverty and injustice through the arts by participating in the CCHD Multi-Media Youth Arts Contest. See www.usccb.org/cchd/youth.htm.


Could you name any saints who gave particularly good examples to us teens about helping poor people?


A good number of the saints dedicated themselves to serving others. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose Philippine Duchesne modeled a life of service to those in poverty. They listened to the poor and served alongside them. Although he is not an official saint, Archbishop Oscar Romero is an excellent Christian witness who stood with the poor to struggle for justice.


You mention organizations that help those who are poor. Could you name some?


Within the whole Church, there are many opportunities to act. Some organizations like Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul provide shelter and help people pay their electric bills or rent. Other organizations like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development get at the root of poverty, helping to break the cycle.


I see lots of ideas here. Could you perhaps narrow it down to one or two of the most important things I could do to empower poor people? After all, I'm not very powerful by myself!


Oh, but you are powerful! Teens can have great impact in the fight against poverty. Remember Jerome? He was only 13 years old and was able to change a major policy at the homeless shelter. Moses thought the same thing as you when God called him to speak up to the Pharaoh about the slavery of the Israelites. He thought God was mistaken and talking to the wrong guy. The prophet Jeremiah said, "I am too young" to speak about injustice. God told Jeremiah to be unafraid, to have confidence because God would give him the words and the skills he needed. Choose one of the ideas that best fits with your God-given talents and interests. Don't try to tackle them all.

Alicia Bondanella is the Youth and Young Adult Coordinator for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. She has ministered with teenagers as a Catholic religion teacher and a parish youth minister.

Amber Lacher (18) and Katie Rapking (17), both members of St. Joseph Parish in North Bend, Ohio, reviewed this issue at their parish on a Sunday morning after Mass last fall. DRE Sue Rensing helped with time and place.

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