Poverty in America. We can and must do better.

In the early days of his pontificate, Pope Francis said, “How I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor!” He has followed this with an almost constant stream of reminders to all Catholics of the preferential option for the poor that ought to guide our personal choices, policies and priorities.

Last month, the US Census Bureau released its annual report on poverty in America for 2013. It reflected very modest gains…

  • the poverty rate declined for the first time in seven years, to 14.5%
  • child poverty declined for the first time in over a decade

…but also the prolonged pain and struggle for millions of American families, and a reminder that we have only really even begun to recover from the most recent recession:

 Poverty in America, 2000-2013

Source: US Census Bureau

Source: US Census Bureau

(Yes, the poverty rate for children is that high. For children under 5, the poverty rate is 22.5%: the younger you are in this country, the more likely you are to live in poverty.)

We can and we must do better. This report reminds us of the consequences of a still unhealed economy that cannot produce enough decent jobs. It is unacceptable that the richest country in the world denies close to 15 million children, almost 1 in 5, a basic level of peace and security. A society that cannot protect the lives and dignity of all its children needs to reassess its priorities.

The bishops of the United States, in A Place at the Table, chart a path forward:

“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.”

In partnership with Christian brothers and sisters in the Circle of Protection, the bishops, along with Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services, have been answering Pope Francis’ call to be “for the poor” regarding the proper role of government in ensuring basic human needs are met.

As Christians, we can also work in our communities and parishes to develop ways not only to assist our brothers and sisters struggling to live in dignity, but to create the opportunities for flourishing that lessen the need for government programs. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 7).

Tom MulloyTom Mulloy is a policy advisor at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Check out Poverty USA’s Interactive Poverty Map to discover the level of poverty in your county.

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