Today, the United States Census Bureau announced the poverty statistics for 2009. The numbers are pretty shocking for me: 43.56 million people were living in poverty in 2009. It’s the largest number that they’ve measured since this data has been collected (they started measuring this in 1959), and it’s a 1.1% increase over 2008’s numbers. Living in poverty is defined as a family of four who makes less than $21,729 a year. At NETWORK, we knew this bad news was coming. For a couple of weeks now, we’ve been bracing ourselves for the worst. But it’s important to remember that these numbers are telling us about history. There are thousands of non-profits out there that have been witnessing the personal tragedies of these numbers every day since the start of this recession.
The recession hit these programs with a double whammy: dried up funding (from governments and private donors) and increased need. I witnessed this personally at the end of 2009 and most of 2010. I was working for a gang intervention program in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries. It’s an amazing organization, run by Greg Boyle, S.J., that offers many services completely free of charge including tattoo removal (the most popular service), counseling, twelve step meetings and even a charter high school. And most importantly – especially during this recession – they employ hundreds of men and women with barriers to employment and help train them to do various types of jobs. This is an especially important part of Homeboy’s service because not only does it offer a sense of purpose to many people looking for a reason to hope, but it is a place to go every day, a shelter from the streets. Like their t-shirts say, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
Well, during this recession, gang members are a group of people that have been disproportionally affected by the unemployment rates. Whereas University of California graduates are underemployed, California Department of Corrections graduates tend to be unemployed. This year, Homeboy Industries found itself drowning in the demand for employment. Funding just couldn’t keep up with the need, and as a result, Homeboy laid off most of its employees in May (about 300 people, including Fr. Greg). They raised some money right away and hired back about 100 employees, but the program is operating as a shadow of its former self. And that is a tragedy for the city of Los Angeles.
This is why the social safety net is so needed right now. Homeboy Industries keeps people out of jail. It is a community, a source of hope for thousands of people in Los Angeles. While programs like Food Stamps, the TANF emergency fund and Section 8 housing (to name a few) don’t solve the problem, they can provide support for programs like Homeboy which are on the front lines battling against the disillusionment that accompanies poverty and marginalization.
When I hear that 29.9% of single mothers are living in poverty, I picture the line cook in the Homegirl Café who won’t be able to move her daughter out of an unhealthy home environment until Los Angeles is able to work through their Section 8 waiting list and start accepting new applications again. And when I see that there were 1.4 million more children living in poverty in 2009, I think of the teenager who was working his way out of the cycle of poverty when he was shot and killed Thursday morning. I think that’s important-that when we look at these numbers and we read the news reports detailing how bad this makes the Democrats or Republicans look, we try to remember who these numbers are actually affecting.