e-mail us


New national goal: End poverty as we know it

In remarks during the recent presentation of the Catholic Charities USA annual survey, Jesuit Fr. Fred Kammer recalled that eight years ago Bill Clinton ran for president promising to “end welfare as we know it.”

“Four years later, the Republican-led Congress and President Clinton did precisely that; they ended welfare as we have known it,” said Kammer, Catholic Charities president. “Yet, poverty and inadequate incomes continue their devastating impact on millions of American families, especially their children; and their needs continue to call forth increasing care and service from Catholic Charities and other voluntary organizations.”

The mid-December report by Catholic Charities showed some disturbing trends:

  • The number of people receiving emergency services increased by 22 percent;
  • The number of people receiving emergency food assistance from soup kitchens, food banks and other food services surged 32 percent;
  • Emergency cash assistance, which helps people pay for rent, utilities, medicine, transportation and other essentials, rose by 29 percent to $80.8 million;
  • The number of people who received utility assistance from Catholic Charities agencies increased 15 percent in 1999;
  • Clothing assistance grew 9 percent;
  • Temporary shelter rose by 4 percent.

This is the “Other America” we have written about in recent months, that significant part of the culture that was left behind by all the soaring economic indicators and all the talk of limitless prosperity.

Arthur Jones has done most of the reporting for us on the America left behind. In April 1999 he began describing the socio-economic landscape in language that was increasingly foreign to popular television and news reports. (Jones’ next installment, on Newark, N.J., will appear soon.) While the top 1 percent of America was becoming wildly wealthy, far more were losing purchasing power.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund in 1998, “Six years of economic expansion with low inflation and a soaring stock market has not filtered down to the 36.5 million poor people.”

The Catholic Charities report dovetailed with a report issued by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities.” On the issue of hunger, the mayors found that during the past year:

  • Requests for emergency food assistance increased by an average of 17 percent, with 83 percent of cities registering an increase, the highest rate of increase since 1992. The year before the rate had been 18 percent, equal to the 1992 rate;
  • Requests for food assistance by families with children increased by an average of 16 percent -- the highest rate of increase since 1991, with requests by elderly persons increasing by an average of 9 percent;
  • Sixty-two percent of the people requesting emergency food assistance were members of families -- children and their parents. Thirty-two percent of adults requesting food assistance were employed.

Perhaps more ominous are the figures on homelessness:

  • The average demand for emergency shelter increased by 15 percent, the highest one-year increase of the decade;
  • On average, people remain homeless for five months. Fifty percent of the cities said that the length of time people are homeless had increased during the last year;
  • On average, single men make up 44 percent of the homeless population, families with children 36 percent, single women 13 percent and unaccompanied minors 7 percent.

According to the report, 50 percent of the homeless are African-American, 35 percent are white, 12 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Native-American and one percent Asian.

The causes of homelessness are many, including substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, poverty, low-paying jobs and changes in public assistance. The primary cause cited, however, in nearly every city, was lack of affordable housing.

“Despite being in a period of unprecedented economic expansion,” said Burlington, Vt., Mayor Peter Clavelle, chair of the conference’s Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness, “low income wage workers and their families are finding it increasingly difficult to locate decent, affordable housing; increasingly, they find themselves among a growing population of homeless. Yet the affordable housing crisis received little attention from the presidential candidates or the U.S. Congress.”

Clavelle makes an essential point: Talk of homelessness and hunger was almost entirely edited out of the most recent campaign season. That fact itself goes far in explaining a cultural failure deeper than the flaws of this or that federal program. In order to scrub concern for the poor from our political discourse, we first had to scrub away the idea of common good, making it almost un-American to think that government might have a stake in guarding people from the ravages of poverty and the whims of the marketplace.

It was during the Reagan administration that the country was given permission to think such thoughts -- that individualism in the extreme and unfettered capitalism with its survival-of-the-fittest mentality were proper foundations for civil society. The evidence shows, however, that such thinking leads to a polarized culture where the divide between rich and poor continues to grow.

We cannot be content with simply ending welfare as we know it. As Kammer put it at that mid-December news conference: “A new president and a new Congress are now about to take office. It is time that we in the United States resolve that a higher and better goal for all of us, a purpose which is in keeping with the best instincts of this nation … is to ‘end poverty as we know it.’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001