US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Will the new poverty numbers finally be a wake-up call?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Justice

Anyone who follows the news is well aware of the nation's current economic troubles and high unemployment rates, but yesterday's report from the U.S. Census Bureau showed just how broad the scope of the problem really is.

The numbers are staggering: 46.2 million Americans, or 15.1 percent of the population, are living below the poverty line. Those numbers have been steadily climbing every year, and the total number of people in poverty is now the highest it has been in the entire 52-year period that the Census Bureau has tracked these numbers.

And while those numbers are making headlines, you have to read a little bit further to get to the even more disturbing reality--poverty is defined as an income of $22,314 for a family of four, or just over $11,000 for a single person. Stop for a moment and think about those numbers. Think about your own income, and what limitations you think it places on you. And think of how many more Americans are probably making enough money to be just above the defined level of poverty but who still can barely afford basic necessities like food, rent, and utilities.

In a statement released today in response to the Census report, Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said what many were probably thinking--that these numbers need to be a wake-up call to our country's leaders. "Today's report is further evidence that the United States of America needs comprehensive reform of the nation's service delivery system," Snyder writes. "This reform should be focused on innovative solutions to the individual needs of the now 46.2 millions of Americans living in poverty...

"Catholic Charities USA is hopeful that today's release of the U.S. Census Bureau's report will help to draw the attention of American policymakers to the moral obligation we have as a country to address this growing crisis."

But the truth is, there was plenty of evidence that major changes were needed long before this report was released. Last year's poverty statistics were only slighly lower, umemployment has been a major concern, and the realities of the recession and the damage it is doing to the lives of millions have been clearly visible.

Yet on the same day the Census report was released, policymakers were arguing among party lines over how to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Republicans took exception to the president's idea of tax increases for individuals earning more than $200,000 a year to cover the cost of his job plan. In other words, it was business as usual in Washington.

The argument over taxing the wealthiest in society to help the poorest is one that will likely never end. Nonetheless, it is worth stopping again to think about the numbers, and what it means for someone to live on more than $200,000 a year.For those closer to the $11,000 level, it would be hard to imagine how one could even spend a six figure income. For the rest of us--those living somewhere in between the two extremes on the wealth spectrum--we need to seriously ask ourselves which group needs us to be looking out for their best interests.

It isn't just the policymakers who have a moral obligation, as Father Snyder puts it, to make the right choice here. It is all of us.