Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Putting a Face
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
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
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
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
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
Many starting points exist for you to build relationships
with the poor in your midst. The key is to pick one and begin.
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.