By Ken Sawa, MSW, LCSW
There is a major shift taking placing in our country to dramatically decrease government funding for the poor and vulnerable. This shift has been occurring slowly, but right now, it is moving with increasing speed and severity.
Such a pressing reality warrants a new way of thinking for Catholic Charities San Bernardino & Riverside Counties, and it presents a direct challenge to people of faith to dramatically expand the support for our ministries in service to the poor in our parishes and the community.
With a few exceptions, prior to the Great Depression, the U.S. government did not play any significant role in caring for families who were poor. This was seen as the responsibility of families, local communities, employers, churches, and other organizations that saw up-close the desperate needs of poor families. They responded to the best of their abilities. Civic responsibility and religious values were the major forces that organized voluntary networks of social services to alleviate the suffering of struggling families unable to fully provide for themselves.
The New Deal in the 1930s was the first major recognition by the U.S. government that failed economic policies were the cause of the Great Depression. This began the movement away from the total responsibility to help needy families at the local level toward the engagement of government resources and programs designed to provide necessary relief for its citizens.
Beginning in the 1980s, there was a shift away from government responsibility to address national problems impacting millions of Americans toward viewing poverty and other social problems as individual problems of irresponsible people. The attitude of “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps” assumes there are not any failed or unjust federal policies - only lazy people that want everything handed to them.
Fast forward to 2017, and the shift in thinking about the causes of poverty and solutions are now well rooted in most Americans. It is not uncommon to hear people say, “Just get a job” or “homelessness is a choice,” thereby taking the complexities of poverty and placing the full burden of it on those suffering from the consequences of it.
So now, the U.S. government accepts very little culpability for the fact that 42 million Americans are living below the poverty line. The official federal annual income threshold for being counted as living in poverty was $11,490 last year for one person and $23,550 for a family of four. In Southern California, I consider those living under the poverty threshold to be destitute not just poor.
In our two-county region, 18% of the region’s total population representing over three quarters of a million households are destitute and live below the poverty threshold – 777,671 children, adults, and seniors. These are people not just statistics.
The Perfect Storm
For decades now, the safety net for poor families and opportunities for them to move out of poverty has been unraveling thread by thread. The cries of the poor have definitely been heard in Washington D.C. and in state legislative houses across the country. But in addition to the clanging bell of fiscal conservativism, it has often been repeated that providing the necessary resources for struggling families is the role of corporations, businesses, churches, non-profit agencies, and individuals. That may sound good, but poverty is a national problem that comes home to roost in our neighborhoods and communities, and we absolutely lack the resources to deal with it.
I have worked as a social worker at Catholic Charities for 25 years. Every day for all of those years I have seen countless very well intentioned people that need a “leg-up” from time to time. This is the norm not the exception. With the right help, at the right time, these very low-income families can move forward and return to a very fragile level of sustaining their families. Otherwise, without necessary services, they will fall into deeper poverty. I watch that happen every day, too.
Families are suffering right now, right here in our communities. The harsh reality is that government resources for the poor are absolutely diminishing and will continue to do so, and the private resources to fill that gap have not shown up. Yet in our two-county region, three quarters of a million residents are destitute, and I’ll venture to state up to 1.5 million residents are poor by most anyone’s standards.
The needs of the poor are vast and horrifying. This is the perfect storm.
As the Official Social Outreach Ministry of the Diocese of San Bernardino, Catholic Charities has been caring for the poor for nearly 40 years on behalf of our Bishop and the Catholic Community in our Diocese. We, too, must do more.
The only option now for Catholic Charities and others tending to the poor is to dramatically increase our plea to concerned citizens for their financial support. We need their help, so we can help others. For if the government severely restricts funding for non-profit organizations that hold the heart, expertise, and courage to dare to fight against poverty, and if we are not successful in increasing the support from individuals, churches, wealthy corporations, businesses, and others, then what?
As Catholics, we have a rich tradition of acting on the social gospel to care for our brothers and sisters in need. The life of Christ has shown us the way. We are nourished by Catholic Social Teaching that inspires and compels us to affirm that each person (regardless of circumstances) is made in the image of God and possesses inherent dignity and worth. We are reminded of our solidarity with the poor that requires not just caring about the poor but our responsibility to do the heavy lifting to serve the poor.
In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI restated that charity is a responsibility of the Church. In his words, “the Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.” In so many beautiful and admirable ways, the Catholic Church, including the Catholic faithful in this Diocese under Bishop Barnes’ prophetic leadership, has responded well to our obligation to be a charitable people.
But changing realities require some new thinking, renewed commitments, and more action. As a Community of Faith, I suggest we get on this big time and re-double our efforts with resources and muscle to tend to our sisters and brothers in need. Just imagine our tremendous impact, if we truly became united in our determination to no longer tolerate the moral scandal of poverty.
After all, WE are our brother’s keeper.
Ken Sawa is the CEO/Executive Vice President of Catholic Charities San Bernardino & Riverside Counties.