New poverty numbers: Don't make this a one-day story

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Catholics who work with the poor aren't shocked by the highest poverty numbers ever, but will the numbers change American opinion on poverty reduction?

Guest blog post By Stephanie Niedringhaus

The poverty numbers are shocking--but not surprising for social service agencies and faith groups stretched thin as they try to help those in need. On September 16, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 43.6 million people in the U.S. lived in poverty in 2009, the highest number since statistics were first kept 51 years ago. That is one in seven people!

Not surprisingly, poverty hits racial minorities and children more than other groups. More than a quarter of all African Americans and Hispanics struggled in poverty during the year, as did more than one in five of all children.

These numbers made their way into the national news programs and other media on Thursday and Friday. Then what? Will there be follow-up coverage with expressions of outrage and calls for action? Or will the story fade away, as usual.

We all remember the initial stories around Hurricane Katrina, when images of New Orleans residents caught in the Superdome and on roof tops tore at our hearts. It quickly became evident that a large percentage of residents who had been unable to escape were from low-income neighborhoods, and many of us thought that our nation could not ignore their suffering. At last, we thought, people of good will everywhere would demand action that would address poverty and racial disparities that can only be called a national scandal.

So what, in fact, really did happen? The narrative quickly turned from poverty and racism to one of government incompetence. The government was fundamentally incapable of doing anything right, we were told. The anti-government fervor evident in today's tea party movement was fueled then too. Forgotten, of course, were the human victims.

If anyone believes that the problems of poverty can be solved by private charities alone, they need only look at these new statistics. My organization recently surveyed social service agencies, and we heard repeatedly that they were facing steeply rising caseloads and more urgent needs. One Kentucky agency worker told us: "We are seeing more people who are unemployed, more men seeking help, more people seeking help for the first time... People are more desperate for help." (See our report, TANF Tested: Lives of Families in Poverty during the Recession, for more information.)

What then is the purpose if government, if not to serve the common good? Don't these new statistics show us once and for all that it is time to set aside individual selfishness and partisanship so we can focus on the wellbeing of all?

Will our elected officials from both parties have the courage to stand up and say that these new poverty statistics are a national scandal that demands immediate action at all levels of government? Or will the nation's narrative return to tax cuts--especially for the wealthy--and government spending cuts that disproportionately affect programs meant to lift people out of poverty?

It is time for voters everywhere to demand government accountability. Will that happen?


 

Guest blogger Stephanie Niedringhaus is the Communications Coordinator for NETWORK, a Catholic Social Justice Lobby. 

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.