Contemporary followers of Jesus are challenged to follow his perspective of siding with those most in need – people on the economic margins and the especially vulnerable. Catholic Social Teaching is clear that we have a special obligation to these people and must stand in solidarity with those who are vulnerable, defend those who cannot defend themselves, and assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on those who lack the economic means to advance their own cause.
Poorer members of U.S. society do not have the same resources as wealthier, more powerful members. For that reason, we must work to ensure that those who are economically marginalized enjoy all human rights, such as the right to life, nourishing food, safe housing, affordable comprehensive medical care, quality education, and employment that provides a living wage – as well as all the civil and political rights that enable people to realize their human rights.
Pope John Paul II, both in Centesimus annus and in Octogesimo adveniens, made it clear that economic as well as political rights apply to everyone everywhere. In the latter encyclical he was especially descriptive: “…stifling oppression constantly gives rise to great numbers of marginal persons, ill-fed, inhumanly housed, illiterate and deprived of political power as well as of the suitable means of acquiring responsibility and moral dignity.”
NETWORK believes that a primary way economic rights can be achieved is through our nation’s safety net, which has been damaged recently and is in danger of unraveling.
Unemployment is unconscionably high (4.2 million in July 2013). The long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or longer) comprise 37% of this number.
Despite this level of joblessness, means-tested programs  have not received adequate funding.
Poverty is not diminishing, with minorities especially affected. To follow the story in just one jurisdiction -- Washington DC has witnessed a rise in poverty among nearly all African Americans and Latinos, while the rise of affluence has occurred only among whites and some African Americans. A 2010 Census report shows that the District’s poverty rate for school-aged children jumped from 24.8% in 2007 to 30.9% in 2010. Nationally, in 2011, 27.6% of African-American households lived in poverty, nearly triple the 9.8% white rate according to another Census Bureau report.
In 2012, according to census statistics, the median household income nationwide was a little more than $51,000, which represents an 8% drop from 2007, when the recession officially began. Last year (2012), 46.5 million people, or 15% of the population, lived in poverty, which is 2.5% higher than pre-recession levels, and as high as it was in the 1960s when the War on Poverty was launched. In most areas today, a family of four needs to earn at least 200% of the federal poverty line in order to provide children with basic necessities.
This census report buttresses several recent studies showing an uneven recovery from the recession. For example, in September 2013, Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, reported that since the recession ended, family incomes in the top 1% grew by 31% while everybody else’s incomes rose by just .4%. Saez said the top 10% of households reaped more than half of all income in the nation, the highest percentage since 1917.
Living in dignity demands a safe and secure place in which to live. According to the 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, approximately 634,000 people in the U.S. were homeless, largely unchanged from the year before. Much homelessness is due to insufficient housing stock for those households with the lowest income.
To examine the situation from both a national and historical perspective, between 1947 and 1979 the wages of workers at all salary levels grew by roughly the same percentage, but between 1979 and 2007, incomes shifted drastically, with the top 5% of earners seeing annual salary increases more than three times the size of those in the middle, not even including low-income households.
Overall, 63% of total income growth went to the top 10% of households between 1979 and 2007 according to research by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Another EPI study shows that from 1973 to 2011, employee productivity grew by 80.4% while median hourly compensation after inflation grew by just 10.7%. These are just a few of many studies that focus on the growth of inequality in this country.
And the situation regarding inequality has not improved since 2007; in fact, many economists maintain that it has gotten worse.
NETWORK has a long history with two programs that provide security to families through income and supports – TANF and refundable tax credits. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families  (TANF), formerly called welfare, provides a block grant to states to help low-income families become self-sufficient through income assistance and support services. Refundable tax credits  provide incentives for work and give extra income to those families and children with the least opportunities.
Additional means-tested programs on which NETWORK works include:
- Housing vouchers, which have been radically reduced
- Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds, which have been cut even though they have only been available to about 30% of those eligible
- Funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, better known as “food stamps”), which is in jeopardy as of September 2013. Some in the House want to change the program from mandated to discretionary, and recent legislation has already placed stringent limiting regulations on eligibility and drastically cut benefits. The temporary boost to SNAP funds provided by ARRA (the “stimulus” legislation) in 2009 comes to an end on November 1, 2013 absent any new legislation. For families of three, the cut will be $29 a month. That’s a serious loss, especially in light of the very low amount of basic SNAP benefits (about $1.40 per person, per meal).
- Medicaid’s ability to provide medical attention to the most vulnerable, including the elderly in need of nursing care, which is in jeopardy since there have been numerous attempts to defund the Affordable Care Act, which expands eligibility for Medicaid as well as attempts to create spending limits for each person eligible for Medicaid.
- Social Security, which continues to face proposed changes that would reduce benefits, being of greatest harm to those with the greatest need. Many of these proposals have been part of attempting to revamp entitlement programs.
Poverty levels continue to be shockingly high. Yet Catholic Social Teaching clearly states that the impact of national economic policies on poor and vulnerable people is the primary criterion for judging their moral value. More than a dozen key Catholic writings maintain that national spending on defense seriously distorts national economic priorities and leads lawmakers to neglect programs that benefit those who need assistance the most. Those who are poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation.
Poverty is not merely the lack of adequate financial resources. It also entails a more profound kind of deprivation – a denial of full participation in the economic, social and political life of society and an inability to influence decisions that affect one’s life. All persons should be able to share in and contribute to the common good. This idea challenges privileged economic power in favor of the wellbeing of all. That so many people are poor in a nation as rich as ours is a social and moral scandal that we cannot ignore.
Sister Simone Campbell, the Executive Director of NETWORK, testified before Congress on the issue of poverty in this country on July 31, 2013. As she points out, we need a fresh way of thinking about this issue! For more information about her testimony, click here.