Who are “the poor?” In Think and Act Anew: How Poverty in America Affects us All, one unnamed Catholic Charities director offers:
1. they cannot afford housing that is clean, safe, and in good repair;
2. they cannot afford nutritious food for themselves and their family on a regular basis;
3. they cannot consistently pay their utility bills even though it is a priority;
4. their children are not adequately clothed for school with clean clothes that fit and are in good repair, and they do not have proper clothing for work; or,
5. they cannot afford to go to the doctor for any kind of illness for fear that the visit will be beyond their means to pay for it.
All of these things are a matter of the basic necessities for human flourishing. They are not luxuries, they are basic human rights to which every human person is entitled. From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, the focus must be persons in need and this begins with listening to those at and below the poverty line.
THE LINE : Poverty in America — It’s not what you think- is ” a groundbreaking documentary chronicling the new face of poverty in America” that should be required viewing for anyone involved in decision making about social welfare policy. In the persons interviewed the recurring theme of hopelessness and frustration emerged.One African- American woman in Chicago was interviewed and as she’s trying to explain how and why the gang problem is so difficult to deal with – she said (and this is a loose-quote) -
it is not that they do not want to live, it is not that they don’t want a future – but they simply do not see one as possible for them, they have no hope.
In Setting Children Free: Loosening the Bonds of Poverty in West Virginia, Bishop Michael Bransfield summarizes the outcome of poverty listening sessions in West Virginia, echoing this same despair:
You spoke of the soul-killing aspects of poverty: so many of the poor you knew had lost hope and were “no longer dreaming.”
What does it mean to be hopeless? to no loner dream? It is an inability to see oneself as having equal human dignity, as in the image of God, and as loved by God and others. This despair is soul-killing, it is a violation of human dignity of individuals, of families, communities, and of generations. It entraps one in hopelessness, internalizes marginalization and makes one unable to embrace the hope found of Jeremiah 29:11,
“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. “
In response, the Christian is called to stand with the crucified peoples- to listen, to see, to accompany, to fight for justice, and to love. This fight for justice involves fighting poverty and structural sin. However, discussions about anti-poverty programs are often hampered by the fear of dependency, fear of the “welfare trap” in which the real danger is making social welfare programs too generous losing the incentive to work and be independent. The starting point in that logic is the failure of the poor, not equal dignity of the poor. Bishop Bransfield recounts one particular story which reveals the complex problem in the “dependency question.”
You recognized the systems to help those in poverty could have unintended consequences: A veteran of working with the poor declared, “I can’t tell you how many times people say they won’t get a higher
paying job because they’ll take away benefits like medical and child support.”
Statements like this are sometimes uncritically taken as evidence of the DEPENDENCY TRAP, the reality is more complicated. Why will people refuse a higher paying job to keep benefits like medical and child support? Is it because those benefits are SOO GOOD? Because they want to “get something for nothing?” Or is it because the higher paying job, in itself, does not pay ENOUGH to compensate for the loss of medical and child support?? The dependency trap revealed here is that the working poor do not see a future, they do not see a way out in which they have a higher paying job and they can meet the basic needs of their family. No parent should be forced to make that choice. The dependency trap about which we should all be worried is the despair that comes with soul-killing hopelessness about one’s future and the future of one’s children. How do we avoid the real dependency trap of despair? By providing greater social protection resources, not less. By providing a graduated spectrum that continues to support families as they climb out of poverty, not which makes that climb even steeper. How do we avoid the dependency trap of despair? By living faithful discipleship in which we treat all of our neighbors as children of God, as the image of Christ, as our brothers and sisters.