Poverty is 'off radar screen' in this year's presidential election, says CCHD head
LOS ANGELES, CA (The Tidings) - he new director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development told representatives of U.S. Catholic foundations last week that four things kept him awake at night: the increasing polarization of American society, the release of some 600,000 men and women from prison this year, the middle-class mortgage crisis where the poor aren’t even being discussed and, most troubling, the creation of a permanent American underclass.
Many complacent and hopeful Americans, he noted, had assumed racism would die, that attitudes such as “Some people are just not supposed to make it in society” or “Why don’t they go back from where they came from?” or “Jesus said the poor will always be with us, so why are you trying to cut the numbers down?” would just fade away.
“But we see [racism and prejudice] raising their ugly heads now,” the Texas native, who’s been on the job about four months, reported. “It’s not Uncle Charlie or Aunt Jill from the ‘50s, but rather it’s emerging on college campuses and high schools. We see the more rampant acts of racism happening at the hands of young people, which suggests to me that probably we didn’t do something right.
“But I don’t think it’s too late,” he added. “I think we have an opportunity to do some things. I would suggest that foundations can help create venues where a conversation can happen. It’s a good time to talk about immigration, and even racism, and how they affect our individual attitudes in all of their manifestations — for us personally, for our society and for us as a church.”
‘We’re really bigger than our worst mistakes’
The kind of racism people harbor, McCloud said, contributes to many issues currently facing U.S. cities and communities: unfair housing, disparities in healthcare, continued segregation and an “unjust” criminal justice system.
Concerning the last, he explained that Christians have to understand “we’re all bigger than our worst mistakes.” He said reaching out to prisoners — large numbers of whom are released every year — can’t be left to priests, religious and deacons involved in prison ministries. If we believe God has blessed every person with human dignity, he said, parishioners must play an active role in helping ex-offenders integrate back into society.
Regarding the mortgage crisis, McCloud said the poor, who are struggling as renters, aren’t even a part of the home-owner discussion, which again renders them voiceless, which increases their feelings of separation from society. The divide between the poor and upper classes plus the nation’s housing and healthcare crises only add to this marginalization.
“I’m concerned about having a permanent underclass in our country that we would create by not educating, by folks not being able to have gainful employment,” McCloud said.
He told foundation workers that it was vital to keep the conversation going about how best to advocate for the poor. “None of us have that secret serum that might be able to cure poverty,” he observed. “But we all have a piece of the truth.”
From charity to justice
The new CCHD director emphasized that foundations must really understand the people they serve. That impressed Loretta O’Donnell, program officer with the SC Ministry Foundation, who also liked what McCloud said about foundations moving from charity to social justice; her foundation, while promoting the mission of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, has been doing so for years.
“Our foundation looks a lot at supporting systemic-change organizations — organizations that are advocating on behalf of systemic change,” she said. “So we support some groups doing policy work in Washington and also some community organizing.”
O’Donnell, however, was most taken by something else.
“I think the issue of racism is not only racism, but also classism,” she told The Tidings. “The whole issue of polarization is important. We have done work in New Orleans, and the haves and have-nots were obviously revealed when the hurricane hit.”
In Cincinnati, O’Donnell said, the two big poverty issues are affordable housing and early childhood development.
Bridget Flood, executive director of the Incarnate Word Foundation in St. Louis, said the number one poverty issue facing Missourians is what’s going to happen to single mothers who max out their five years of lifetime benefits under TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program in 1997.
“Some of my agencies [we’re funding] just told me that these families are basically living with no money except food stamps, money from a boyfriend and maybe a handout from grandma, engaging in illegal activity or being part of the underground economy and being paid under the table.”
“How is that going to be sustainable for these women?” she wondered. “And what impact does it have on their children?
But Flood is even more concerned about the Bush Administration’s “compassionate conservative” call for churches and religious foundations to fill in for drastic federal and state funding cutbacks.
“Foundations don’t have enough money to alleviate these social ills that the government used to take care of,” she said during a break in the second day of the conference. “The churches also don’t have the trained professionals to deal with the whole host of issues that surround someone who is living in poverty.”
Election’s ‘sad travesty’
The polarization between haves and have-nots as well as between races and ethnicities — along with declining government resources and the “hunkering down” of the well-heeled to look after their own interests — makes it especially difficult right now for foundations trying to empower the poor, according to CCHD’s McCloud.
He called it a “sad travesty” that in this presidential election year poverty was mostly off the radar screen of candidates. So it is up to people of faith to raise the level of debate and start asking the difficult queries.
“We’ve got to ask those hard questions that give a preferential option to those persons who are poor and struggling,” he said during an interview. “And we have to be the ones to ask the questions.
“There’s a lot of talk about the economy. Well, let’s talk about the economy and the impact it has on the poor. There’s a lot of talk about the war. Let’s talk about the war and the impact that it has on the poor of our country and the people of Iraq. Let’s talk about healthcare. Not healthcare for only the middle class. Let’s talk about healthcare for those persons who are pushed to the margins of our society.”
Getting to know the poor
But the candidates have talked about hope and change, and who knows more about hope and transformation than “church folks,” McCloud noted. So, in another sense, it was actually a good time to be an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised.
“But we’ve got to know who they are and that means we go a little bit further than reading about them in reports,” he said. “It goes a little bit further than driving past them on the freeway and saying, ‘Those are poor people down there.’ We have to know who they are and hear their stories.”
The national anti-poverty leader said the most crucial issue today is simply an insensitivity to poverty.
“If there was a deeper awareness and a deeper sensitivity to persons who were in poverty, people would respond differently,” he maintained. “But I think we’ve insulated ourselves from it effectively, so we don’t have to see or hear or think about it.”
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Tidings (www.the-tidings.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
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