The New York Times reported last week on the growth of the “near poor”–those whose incomes are fifty percent or less above the poverty line. This group is not poor, but they are close enough that an unexpected illness or bill can send them over the edge. The “near poor” and the truly poor together represent one in three Americans. The “near poor” are more likely to be suburban, older, white, and working full time. (One woman profiled in the New York Times article worked as a social worker for Catholic Charities.) How are we to respond to this newly named group of vulnerable people?
As with more serious poverty, a number of policy issues arise. Catholic Social Teaching calls for a living wage for full time workers, adequate health and retirement benefits, and decent affordable housing. Improvements in these areas would certainly help many on the edge of poverty. But who among us can afford to wait for the federal government to make progress on these issues?
In the meantime, I wonder what else we can do. This weekend a friend and I were making home visits for my parish’s St. Vincent Paul group. We delivered a box of food to a divorced mom with three kids, one of whom attended a local Catholic high school and looked like he could have been one of my sons. The mom worked full time, kept a modest apartment, and seemed to doing her best to provide for her family. Yet, even with food stamps, she was sometimes short of food at the end of the month. They weren’t starving. They hadn’t had their gas turned off. Their home was safe and clean. But they were on the edge. My friend, the mom, and I chatted about which local grocery stores had the best deals, about coupon days, and about the farmer’s market downtown where you can buy a lot of produce cheaply. We shared some of our strategies for living frugally.
It got me thinking about how U. S. Catholic parishes in the early and mid 20th century used to function as indispensable subcultures for people not far from the edge of poverty. Because they had to and because they felt they should, parishioners shared resources. Their parishes did not just collect food for Thanksgiving and presents for Christmas. They came together to provide loans, life insurance, sick pay, and a lot more. As communities of vulnerable people, they helped each other make it through.
If one in three Americans lives in poverty or close to it, there is plenty of work for communities to do. I’d love to know if blog readers are aware of parishes doing innovative things to help “near poor” members. I’m happy to deliver food, but what I’m really looking for is a way to help families move away from the edge.