The Division of Poverty

The incidence of National Migration Week, Jan. 5-11, during Poverty Awareness Month is not accidental. Both call our attention to the kind of division that comes from the hardening of the difference and diversity among equals – brothers and sisters who are children of the one God. The Bible depicts it as destroyer of families in the Cain-Abel rivalry and as a destabilizer of ethnic and national communities at Babel, the vestiges and legacies of the satanic pride that lead to the Fall. Today we see it internationally in the plight of migrants, refugees and the victims of human trafficking and in the persisting national scandal of poverty.

No doubt each of us has been touched personally at one time or another by the poignant account of an individual or family caught in a vicious circle of poverty or political contingency. Awareness is the first step toward action. The challenge for us Catholics this month is to pray that our vision will lead our hearts and hands beyond the headlines, or even the anecdotes, to the stark reality and the scope of the human indignities around us.

One out of every five children in America lives in poverty, more than in many industrialized nations. The federal “poverty threshold” in 2010 for a family of four with two children 17 or younger is $22,113. However, basic needs researchers estimate that it takes an income of about 1.5 to 3.5 times the official poverty level, depending on locality, to cover the cost of a family’s minimum day-to-day needs. At a federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour, a single parent with one child working full-time every week of the year would earn $15,080 before any deductions or taxes – only $240 above the poverty threshold of $14,840 (Source: U.S. Census Bureau). The mere recitation of figures and percentages can be mind-numbing, barraged as we are each day by data.

Awareness is more than statistics proficiency. It cannot motivate effectively unless it reaches the conscience, which is easily bypassed if the sole reaction is to devise another political strategy. For all its worthy intentions, the so-called “War on Poverty,” boldly crafted in the mid-1960s, has not stemmed the advance of poverty in our country. A more fundamental change is required that changes hearts.

Disintegration of Family Structures

Pope Francis, in word and example, has been calling all to just such a conversion. It is most timely that he has called for an extraordinary meeting of the Synod of Bishops in the fall to discuss the family, considering how the advance of poverty is closely connected to the disintegration of family structures, the increase of single-parent homes and what has been termed the feminization of poverty.

The Gospel is to its core a message that heals divisions. The mission belongs to each and every disciple of Christ to spread it, one person at time, heart to heart, hand to hand. Pope Francis is proclaiming this message as a challenge to each person to reach out to those around them or within their area of influence to share their resources, both temporal and spiritual. From those to whom more has been entrusted, more will be expected. This is the radical challenge of the Gospel. Lived consciously and generously, it has the power to heal the division of poverty.