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Seeing the Poor….

September 21, 2007

Something I wrote for our parish newsletter…..

Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Mathew 25: 44-45)

Jesus’ parable reminds us of the tendency of the privileged to overlook the poor among us, and the consequences of this tendency. Seeing the poor has perhaps never been a greater problem than for us today, living in the richest society in human history.

But poverty should not be hard to see, even here in the Happy Valley. In August, an article in the Centre Daily Times described the increasing problem of poverty in central Pennsylvania. Stagnant wages and the rapidly rising cost of basic necessities like rent, food and fuel have created a significant increase in the number of requests for emergency assistance for food assistance. The Food Bank of State College Area saw requests increase by 10% this summer over last, and the Bellefonte’s Faith Centre Food Bank by 30%. Meanwhile, state funding for food banks in Centre and Clearfield counties was cut by about four percent for the coming year (“More Homes Need Help Buying Food,” CDT 20 August 2007, page 1A.)

The latest national data from the U.S. census bureau (from 2005), shows that 36.5 million or 12.3% of Americans live below the poverty line — defined as an annual income at or below $9,800 for individuals, and $20,000 for a family of four. Poverty rates for counties in Central Pennsylvania are comparable, and even a bit higher. The latest available county level data (from 2004) reports a 12.1% rate for Centre County, 12.4% for Huntingdon, 13.0% for Clinton and 13.6% for Clearfield.

No, poverty should not be hard to see. But we may be inclined to close our eyes, and society encourages us in this. Poverty is always disturbing, whether one is poor or wealthy. But the privileged and comfortable have the means to turn away, and our society provides many distractions and amusements to cater to our inclination to turn away from the problems of the poor. Having decided to look at poverty, it took me some 5 or 10 minutes of digging to find the statistics in the previous paragraph. But I would have to work hard, very hard, to avoid knowing about Paris Hilton and her troubles.

Here in the Happy Valley, I think we are perhaps especially prone to think that poverty is elsewhere, that it has nothing to do with us. There are, after all, many good reasons why our community has earned that name. But Centre County’s poverty rate of 12.1% translates into more than 17,000 people who are struggling to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families. I am ashamed to say that I know, despite my best efforts, more about the problems of Paris Hilton, or the triumphs or travails of the Nittany Lions, than about the struggles of any of these 17,000 people.

Once we open our eyes to the need in our midst, we are called to action. One aspect of that action is charity. Clearly, we need to increase our giving in response to the increasing need in our community, and I am confident that Good Shepherd’s generous parishioners will increase their donations to the State College Area Food Bank, collected the second Sunday of each month, and redouble our efforts to provide food and cash assistance to those in need through the Mathew 25 ministries.

But Catholic social teaching obligates us to do more. We must also analyze the social situations and social structures that produce poverty, and participate in long-term efforts to establish just laws and fair social structures. For many Catholics, justice work may seem more daunting because it focuses on the long-term, and demands changes that will be resisted by the powerful and privileged in our society.

Scripture and church tradition remind us constantly that we will be judged by our treatment of the poor and marginalized. We fully serve the poor only when we practice the twin virtues of charity and justice. Charity inspires us to meet immediate needs of individuals for food, clothing, shelter, and the skills needed to be more sufficient. Justice urges us to try to understand the extent and causes of poverty, to demand policy changes such as living wage requirements, increased availability of housing for low-income families, tax credits for the working poor and many other concrete objectives that will address the social causes of individual suffering, and most importantly, to empower the poor to advocate for themselves.

Charity and justice are combined in Catholic Charities USA’s Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America. The goals of the campaign are:

  • To reduce poverty in the United States by 50 percent by the year 2020.
  • To call upon the government to do more to serve those who are poor, and to improve public policies that strengthen and support families.
  • To educate policymakers and the public about the struggles of those living in poverty and the good work of those who serve them in local communities.
  • To engage those who are most impacted by government policies to be active participants in developing solutions to reducing poverty.
  • To work with individuals and organizations across the country to address poverty in our country.

You can find out more about the campaign at http://www.catholiccharitiesusa.org/poverty/. The website allows you to endorse the campaign, and provides many resources for learning more about poverty and related social issues, and getting involved in the campaign.

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