As child poverty increases, diocesan agencies are serving more families in need

December 11, 2023 at 4:00 p.m.
Shutterstock image
Shutterstock image

Carol Olivieri

The calls for help with Christmas began coming in September.

Project PAUL — an independent nonprofit focusing on the Poor, Alienated, Unemployed and Lonely — has a Christmas gift card program for which existing client families must register if they have children ages 14 and under.

“We’ve never gotten calls this early,” said Sal Cortale, executive director of the organization founded in 1980 at St. Ann Parish in Keansburg.

The Christmas program is just one area in which Cortale has seen increased needs because of decreases in government-funded programs.

Because the federal government decreased funding for social services for the homeless, Cortale said, “This year we exhausted rental assistance by June, instead of this funding lasting into the latter part of the year.” This means that for families with children, money must be diverted from other items, such as food and clothing, to pay the rent.

Kathy West, director of client services for Project PAUL, told The Monitor that the increase in number of homeless “is greater than we’ve ever seen.” Often that means families are split up, with children being cared for by extended family members.

Child poverty doubles

The U.S. Census Bureau said that between 2021 and 2022, the child poverty rate more than doubled: from 5.2 percent to 12.4 percent. This rate was higher than even the 2020 child poverty rate of 9.7 percent.

Although research from places like Columbia University showed that monthly payments from the 2021 expanded Child Tax Credit were reducing child poverty and food insufficiency, Congress did not renew the program, part of the American Rescue Plan, because of lack of bipartisan support in the Senate.

At the food pantry at Mount Carmel Guild in Trenton, several people explained what it means for their families to no longer receive the expanded child tax credit. The Monitor is identifying them by first name only to protect their privacy.

Less money and higher costs mean less food

Elizabeth visited the food pantry for the first time in October. In 2021, she was working full time, and her three children qualified for the expanded CTC. That money helped her with rent and utilities and enabled family outings, something Elizabeth regrets not being able to provide for her children now. The fall is a particularly challenging time with expenses related to returning to school: shoes, school supplies and school uniforms. Elizabeth no longer has a full-time job and, with less income, she said she is grateful for the help provided by the food pantry.

Zuly has four children, and her husband works full time. Like Elizabeth, Zuly used the additional CTC money to help with rent and utilities. Without the expanded CTC and with the increased cost of car insurance, rent, utilities and food, Zuly said she buys less food to make ends meet. She visits the food pantry weekly and utilizes other food pantries that serve Mercer County, such as Arm In Arm. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits also help, but for Zuly like so many others, these benefits have decreased.

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released “Household Food Security in the United States in 2022.” The USDA says food insecurity means that households’ “ability to acquire adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources.” These findings parallel the findings of the US Census Bureau. In 2021, the percentage of children experiencing food insecurity had decreased to 6.2 percent from 7.6 percent in 2020, but in 2022 this percentage had increased to 8.8 percent.

Food insecurity also on rise

Mary Inkrot, executive director of Mount Carmel Guild, explained: “In Trenton, one in three children suffers from food insecurity. Households in need can visit the food pantry once a week. In 2021, we averaged 1,000 visits per month. That number increased to 1,400 in 2022 and, so far this year, we are on track to have 1,450 visits per month.”

Inkrot said the summer months are particularly challenging for families of school-age children. “Lack of adequate nutrition, particularly if sustained, can injure a child’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development. Many of the low-income families assisted at the Guild depend upon the free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch program; when not available, it places a strain on their limited finances and their efforts to offer healthy meals.”

The Guild’s Summer Feeding Families project includes “items for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks as well as selections of fresh produce. We utilize resources from the national Family Dinner Project to create a family meal kit that includes all ingredients, recipes and family activities. In 2023, our goal was to serve 150 families, and we served 156.”

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Trenton serves the poor and the vulnerable throughout the four counties in the Diocese. The effect of increasing child poverty and food insecurity on its programs gives a picture of what this means for children.

“We have seen a 150 percent increase in total visits to our food pantries over last year,” Arnold Valentin, who works with the agency’s community services, said in October, “and we still have more than two months to go. My program directors have said they are seeing more and more families with children coming in for assistance.”

Nick Koumarianos, program director at Catholic Charities in Ocean County, reported that in 2021, the Ocean Food Pantry served more than 7,000 people. That number increased to more than 9,200 in 2022, and through September of this year, the pantry had served nearly 11,900. He said the number of families requesting help signing up for SNAP benefits also increased.

At-risk children and families now face greater challenges

Roberto Hernandez, program director at El Centro, Catholic Charities’ comprehensive immigration resource center for Latino families in Trenton, notes that, depending on their immigration status, some families are not eligible for SNAP benefits. Hernandez said El Centro is seeing about 50 percent more families this year than last.

“It used to be mostly individuals who came in looking for food. But now, we are seeing more and more families, parents with their children, coming in. In some cases, they are desperate,” he said. “We give them what we can, and we also give them a list of other places that are giving out food.”

Father Javier Diaz, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Long Branch, states, “I clearly see the number of families in need increasing rapidly, and in many cases single mothers struggling to provide for their children. The cuts in government programs increase the number of families we assist through our social concerns and St. Vincent de Paul Society programs.”

One way that they have been able to help alleviate some of the suffering of children is through a grant from the Bishop Ahr Foundation of the Diocese that enables them to buy diapers. When this grant is used up, they will not have the money to continue to provide diapers.

Still, Father Diaz is confident that God will provide.  He reflected, “Thank God, the Lord never abandons his people and he listens to the cry of the poor. In the middle of so much need the Divine Providence is always with us through cheerful givers. They are the presence of Our Merciful God as they encounter and serve the Suffering Jesus in the poor.”


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The calls for help with Christmas began coming in September.

Project PAUL — an independent nonprofit focusing on the Poor, Alienated, Unemployed and Lonely — has a Christmas gift card program for which existing client families must register if they have children ages 14 and under.

“We’ve never gotten calls this early,” said Sal Cortale, executive director of the organization founded in 1980 at St. Ann Parish in Keansburg.

The Christmas program is just one area in which Cortale has seen increased needs because of decreases in government-funded programs.

Because the federal government decreased funding for social services for the homeless, Cortale said, “This year we exhausted rental assistance by June, instead of this funding lasting into the latter part of the year.” This means that for families with children, money must be diverted from other items, such as food and clothing, to pay the rent.

Kathy West, director of client services for Project PAUL, told The Monitor that the increase in number of homeless “is greater than we’ve ever seen.” Often that means families are split up, with children being cared for by extended family members.

Child poverty doubles

The U.S. Census Bureau said that between 2021 and 2022, the child poverty rate more than doubled: from 5.2 percent to 12.4 percent. This rate was higher than even the 2020 child poverty rate of 9.7 percent.

Although research from places like Columbia University showed that monthly payments from the 2021 expanded Child Tax Credit were reducing child poverty and food insufficiency, Congress did not renew the program, part of the American Rescue Plan, because of lack of bipartisan support in the Senate.

At the food pantry at Mount Carmel Guild in Trenton, several people explained what it means for their families to no longer receive the expanded child tax credit. The Monitor is identifying them by first name only to protect their privacy.

Less money and higher costs mean less food

Elizabeth visited the food pantry for the first time in October. In 2021, she was working full time, and her three children qualified for the expanded CTC. That money helped her with rent and utilities and enabled family outings, something Elizabeth regrets not being able to provide for her children now. The fall is a particularly challenging time with expenses related to returning to school: shoes, school supplies and school uniforms. Elizabeth no longer has a full-time job and, with less income, she said she is grateful for the help provided by the food pantry.

Zuly has four children, and her husband works full time. Like Elizabeth, Zuly used the additional CTC money to help with rent and utilities. Without the expanded CTC and with the increased cost of car insurance, rent, utilities and food, Zuly said she buys less food to make ends meet. She visits the food pantry weekly and utilizes other food pantries that serve Mercer County, such as Arm In Arm. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits also help, but for Zuly like so many others, these benefits have decreased.

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released “Household Food Security in the United States in 2022.” The USDA says food insecurity means that households’ “ability to acquire adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources.” These findings parallel the findings of the US Census Bureau. In 2021, the percentage of children experiencing food insecurity had decreased to 6.2 percent from 7.6 percent in 2020, but in 2022 this percentage had increased to 8.8 percent.

Food insecurity also on rise

Mary Inkrot, executive director of Mount Carmel Guild, explained: “In Trenton, one in three children suffers from food insecurity. Households in need can visit the food pantry once a week. In 2021, we averaged 1,000 visits per month. That number increased to 1,400 in 2022 and, so far this year, we are on track to have 1,450 visits per month.”

Inkrot said the summer months are particularly challenging for families of school-age children. “Lack of adequate nutrition, particularly if sustained, can injure a child’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development. Many of the low-income families assisted at the Guild depend upon the free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch program; when not available, it places a strain on their limited finances and their efforts to offer healthy meals.”

The Guild’s Summer Feeding Families project includes “items for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks as well as selections of fresh produce. We utilize resources from the national Family Dinner Project to create a family meal kit that includes all ingredients, recipes and family activities. In 2023, our goal was to serve 150 families, and we served 156.”

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Trenton serves the poor and the vulnerable throughout the four counties in the Diocese. The effect of increasing child poverty and food insecurity on its programs gives a picture of what this means for children.

“We have seen a 150 percent increase in total visits to our food pantries over last year,” Arnold Valentin, who works with the agency’s community services, said in October, “and we still have more than two months to go. My program directors have said they are seeing more and more families with children coming in for assistance.”

Nick Koumarianos, program director at Catholic Charities in Ocean County, reported that in 2021, the Ocean Food Pantry served more than 7,000 people. That number increased to more than 9,200 in 2022, and through September of this year, the pantry had served nearly 11,900. He said the number of families requesting help signing up for SNAP benefits also increased.

At-risk children and families now face greater challenges

Roberto Hernandez, program director at El Centro, Catholic Charities’ comprehensive immigration resource center for Latino families in Trenton, notes that, depending on their immigration status, some families are not eligible for SNAP benefits. Hernandez said El Centro is seeing about 50 percent more families this year than last.

“It used to be mostly individuals who came in looking for food. But now, we are seeing more and more families, parents with their children, coming in. In some cases, they are desperate,” he said. “We give them what we can, and we also give them a list of other places that are giving out food.”

Father Javier Diaz, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Long Branch, states, “I clearly see the number of families in need increasing rapidly, and in many cases single mothers struggling to provide for their children. The cuts in government programs increase the number of families we assist through our social concerns and St. Vincent de Paul Society programs.”

One way that they have been able to help alleviate some of the suffering of children is through a grant from the Bishop Ahr Foundation of the Diocese that enables them to buy diapers. When this grant is used up, they will not have the money to continue to provide diapers.

Still, Father Diaz is confident that God will provide.  He reflected, “Thank God, the Lord never abandons his people and he listens to the cry of the poor. In the middle of so much need the Divine Providence is always with us through cheerful givers. They are the presence of Our Merciful God as they encounter and serve the Suffering Jesus in the poor.”

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