“Charity … is always a preferential love shown to those in greatest need; it undergirds everything we do on their behalf. Only a gaze transformed by charity can enable the dignity of others to be recognized and, as a consequence, the poor to be acknowledged and valued in their dignity, respected in their identity and culture, and thus truly integrated into society.”  ~ Pope Francis, “Fratelli Tutti”

 

In 2007, just a few years after the serial disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Catholic Charities USA launched the Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America, setting the ambitious goal of “Cutting Poverty in Half by 2020.”

At that time, with the number of impoverished Americans estimated at an alarming 36.5 million, the campaign took aim at four main areas: improving food and nutrition programs; increasing access to health care; enabling more people to get affordable housing, and promoting greater economic security for the poor and vulnerable through programs that support work and strengthen families.

A status report a year after launch acknowledged certain points of progress for which the campaign had advocated, including passage of a federal law increasing the minimum wage; reforms to student loans, and the provision of additional resources to low-income families struggling with heating bills. Continual and incremental progress in the decade that followed, together with other similar initiatives, likely contributed to an actual reduction in the poverty rate from 2014 to 2019. Though the aspirational “cut in half” measure was not achieved, the rate of 10.5 percent in 2019 was the lowest since 1959, when such records were first published.

Then 2020 arrived, and the pandemic changed everything.

While income and poverty rates are hard to pin down because of the fluctuations in jobs and governmental aid in the 10 months of the 2020 pandemic, certain statistics are hard to ignore. The numbers of impoverished Americans held steady through May thanks to the different forms of relief funding and even tax returns. But beginning in June, those numbers took flight, according to the results of a Columbia University study, which found that eight million people were plunged into poverty as a result of the pandemic’s toll and that the total number of people who fall below the poverty line is actually 55 million.

These trends have unleashed unprecedented hunger, homelessness and incomes that cannot sustain basic needs, dealing an especially crushing blow to children and those in the minority community.

Responding to this human suffering in charity continues to be a priority of the Church, regardless of the complexity and adversity that sometimes exist. A network of agencies and ministries within the Church – including on the national, diocesan and parish levels – has been working vigorously to advocate for those who struggle with poverty, to provide food and assistance with rent and utilities and a host of other needs. They are doing even more now during COVID-19, despite a shortfall in the charitable giving that provides their funding, and a volunteer force dealing with illnesses and restrictions. 

Each January, to reinforce this core mandate, the Church observes Poverty Awareness Month, an initiative aimed at building awareness and putting a human face on poverty. During this special time, the Catholic community is invited to join the U.S. bishops and Catholic charitable organizations in taking up Pope Francis’ challenge to live in solidarity with the poor.

Though the challenges in 2020 have grown and the resources have declined, the Church will not turn from the needs of the poor.