A few things you need to know about poverty in the U.S. right now

Tom Mulloy, policy advisor at USCCB

Tom Mulloy, policy advisor at USCCB

As Catholics, we strive for an economy that places people first. Everyone has a right to live in dignity, free from poverty, with decent work at just wages.

Life in America is far from our Catholic understanding of a just economy. Back in September, Archbishop Thomas Wenski cautioned against settling for this ‘new normal’ that leaves too many people and families behind.

The Census Bureau recently confirmed these fears when it released updated poverty and income statistics for 2014. Five years after the Great Recession — after five consecutive years of economic growth and “recovery”– Census reported that:

  • About 15 percent of Americans–close to 47 million people–live in poverty. The overall poverty rate hasn’t been this high for this long in over forty years.
  • 1 in 5 American children live in poverty. Child poverty hasn’t been this persistently high since the early ‘90s.
  • For half of all American households, income is still significantly lower than it was before the recession even began.

When the economic life of our country breaks down like this and fails to provide sufficient work and opportunity, public programs can play a critical role in ensuring human needs are met. Fortunately, Census had good news on this front. Federal antipoverty programs are relatively good at combating the shortcomings of the economy and reducing poverty.

  • Working family tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit, taken together, are by far the most effective tools we have for fighting child poverty. Without them, the child poverty rate would be seven whole percentage points higher.
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly referred to as food stamps), in addition to fighting hunger, reduces overall poverty by one and a half percentage points, and child poverty by close to three percentage points.
  • 1 in 7 American senior citizens live in poverty. Without Social Security, that number skyrockets to 1 in 2. Yes–fifty percent.

We should make sure these programs are protected by reminding our elected officials that they help millions of people achieve some sense of financial security. Our interactive map at PovertyUSA.org now has updated statistics for your state to inform your advocacy efforts. We can also work for more and better jobs with just wages in our own communities. The county-level view of our map highlights programs across the country doing this critical work with help from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Let’s give Pope Francis the last word. In his address to Congress last month, he implored:

Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Mt 7:12). This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.


Tom Mulloy is a policy advisor in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.


For an in-depth discussion of the Census report, check out our Poverty in America, 2014 and a Catholic Response webinar and download a copy of the presentation. 

Payday Lending Hurts Families

Tom MulloyOn a visit last year to a community organization that receives funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, I heard the story of a woman working in a retail store, barely keeping her head above water. When the bills piled up, she took out a two-week payday loan. Six months later, she was still repaying the loan. It had been “rolled” multiple times. Although she had paid fees equal to the original loan many times over, she still owed more. The fees and interest worked out to an interest rate of close to 200% APR (annualized percentage rate).

Welcome to the perverse world of predatory lending, where the person who needs a lifeline gets tossed a boulder.

Payday lending is deceptively simple. A borrower in a pinch, using their next paycheck as collateral, is given a loan and charged a fee. The loan is then paid back when that paycheck rolls in.

The reality is rarely that quick and harmless. Most payday loans, in fact, are predatory and exploitative.

Predatory because they are built to become debt traps that borrowers cannot escape:

  • The overwhelming majority of loans–90 percent–are taken out either immediately (i.e. rolled) or within the same two-week pay period.
  • Borrowers are in debt, on average, seven months out of the year (remember, these are marketed and sold as two-week loans).
  • Many borrowers pays more in fees than the cost of the original loan. In fact, a typical two-week payday loan can carry an interest rate of nearly 400% APR.

Exploitative because these loans are targeted to take advantage of vulnerable people and families:

  • The typical borrower makes $22,400 a year.
  • Seven out of ten borrowers use the loans to cover everyday expenses.
  • A third are married; close to 40% have children.

Think about it–it’s called payday lending because most borrowers (75 percent) are employed. But their jobs don’t pay enough to make ends meet, so they desperately seek out more money.

If this sounds like a brazen affront to human dignity, you’re not alone in that conclusion. Pope Francis told a gathering of advocacy groups last year, “When a family has nothing to eat, because it has to make payments to usurers, this is not Christian, it is not human! This dramatic scourge in our society harms the inviolable dignity of the human person.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares, “Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them” (no. 2269).

To fight this dramatic scourge of payday lending in America, the USCCB has joined with Christian partners in Faith for Just Lending, to call attention to the abuses of predatory payday lending and demand better financial options for vulnerable people. FJL includes a broad spectrum of Christian groups and is committed to being a voice for exploited working families.

To learn more about the USCCB’s work on payday lending, see our webinar, download this PowerPoint presentation, and read Bishop Stephen Blaire’s letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

To learn more about the FJL campaign, access even more resources, and get involved, go here.

For a concrete story of hope, find out how the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops is helping communities confront payday lending.

Tom Mulloy is a policy advisor in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Statistics in this post are from Payday Lending in America (The Pew Charitable Trusts) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Questions of Free Trade

Mulloy and Coll

Tom Mulloy and Richard Coll of the USCCB.

Quick, take a look at the tag on your shirt.

Where was it made? El Salvador? Vietnam? China?

How about that fruit you ate for lunch? A banana from Costa Rica? An apple from Chile?

Do you have a neighbor or loved one who has lost a job because their plant closed?

Do you know where that phone or tablet came from? Even more than where they are assembled, the plastics, state of the art glass, and precious and other metals are all produced in hundreds of far off places.

When it comes to the immigration debate, have we really ever stopped to ask why so many people take the frightening and courageous step of leaving their home country to come to the United States in search of work?

The answers to these questions are determined, in large part, by the international trade agreements our country negotiates with others. Our country’s trade policies touch almost every aspect of our lives. What’s more, they touch the lives of almost every other person on the planet, many in very consequential ways. Despite this, most Americans are unaware of the importance of trade deals, and the current debate happening in Washington goes largely unnoticed.

Debate about a new trade agreement is raising these very questions. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would create rules among a significant number of nations in North and South America as well as Asia.

This debate will have profound consequences on the lives of those in poverty and on vulnerable communities, both here in the United States and around the globe. This is why the Catholic bishops of the United States, taking a cue from Pope Francis, are following the conversation closely. Earlier this year, Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Bishop Oscar Cantú wrote to Congress, saying that:

Trade policies must be grounded in people-centered ethical criteria, in pursuit of the common good for our nation and people around the world.

They laid out criteria for just trade policy that would accomplish this, stressing that the question is not whether trade itself is good or bad; Catholic teaching affirms that trade, properly oriented, can be good. The real question is how to craft trade policies that affirm human life and dignity, encourage the development of peoples, and advance the common good. History tells us that many trade policies, as crafted and implemented, have harmed many and have actually contributed to the challenges of excessive economic inequality, migration, hunger and conflict.

As Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Cantú point out, a critical step in achieving a just framework is participation. As with any issue, trade agreements must be debated and constructed in a way

that will assure that voices from affected sectors of society can be heard and that their interests are reflected in whatever agreements emerge.

Historically, trade negotiations are granted special status, formerly known as ‘fast track’, now known as ‘Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)’. However, many have raised concerns that this process does not allow for all affected parties to have their voices heard.

Trade agreements may be complicated, but the criteria that should guide them are simple and rest on core tenets of Catholic teaching. A commitment to these criteria, laid out by Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Cantú, would be an important first step toward creating a more just world.

Richard Coll, Esq. and Tom Mulloy are policy advisors at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn more about USCCB advocacy for just trade agreements.

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.

Can one person make a difference? On labor issues, absolutely.

Discussing the state of labor and workers in America is a challenge. There is so much to say and little space in which to say it. Such is the case with solutions—the challenges that workers, their families and our economy face are significant, and often discouraging and overwhelming. They lead us to ask the question: Can one person make a difference?

I say absolutely. It begins at the core of our teaching—human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. We are called to protect and affirm that dignity always.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reflects on this in the context of “an economy of exclusion”:

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading (no. 53).

We live in a society preoccupied with things, consumed with consuming, cajoled and prodded into buying this new product, getting that service done. But deeply embedded in those everyday consumer decisions are profound human consequences.

How often do we pause to consider the dignity of the human on the other side of those choices? Do we ever really stop and ponder the worker who made this thing we desire so strongly? It is easy to protect and affirm the human dignity of the people we can see, hear, and interact with; less so when it is a worker thousands of miles away, or hidden in a rural warehouse or laboring to clean as we rest.

We get discount clothes, but do we give a thought to whether workers in the factories and old textile towns who manufacture (or used to manufacture) them work in safe conditions and are paid just wages?

We get affordable, fresh produce, but do we give a thought to the migrant workers who toil in the fields, the exhausted Earth, or the small family farms that used to feed our country but can no longer compete?

Caregivers and domestic workers, the majority of whom are female and immigrant, work for poverty-level wages to care for the most vulnerable among us–our young and elderly. Do we give a thought to their circumstances, or whether and how the lack of quality care for the old and the young opens the door to the same attitudes that see no grave moral wrong in abortion and assisted suicide?

Pope Francis’ words should stir and challenge us. An economy of inclusion that alleviates poverty and creates decent work demands that we appreciate the human consequences of our decisions.

It is not easy to ask these questions, but our faith requires it. Now, everybody’s circumstances are different, and not all of us can act to the same degree. However, it is important to ask these questions, and make life- and dignity-affirming choices whenever we can. In the words of St. John Paul II:

It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (Centesimus Annus, no. 36).

May God grant us all wisdom, charitable hearts and vision to see the needs of our sisters and brothers in the decisions we make each day.

Tom MulloyTom Mulloy is a policy advisor in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development


Go deeper:
Check out organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development working on labor issues.
Check out the bishops’ recent Labor Day Statement.