Most Americans who are under middle age have seen but never really touched the face of poverty. The national trauma we know as the Great Depression has been our only mass experience of what it means to be without the means of sustenance and to have no way to remedy the situation. To be sure, we have had several" recessions" which have caused us to think, even in personal terms, of doing without some of our customary amenities; but for the most part these have been temporary, and for most of us more annoying than really troublesome.
In the last few years we have even been told that there is in fact no poverty to speak of in the United States, that the so-called "War on Poverty" has at last been won. A few years ago, the United States Chamber of Commerce asked, "Have we licked poverty without knowing it?" One economic observer has argued that "the day of income poverty as a major public issue would appear to be past."
The poverty picture surely has changed in the last two decades and, despite the critics, government programs have been important in bringing the change about. The final report of the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity (NACEO) tells us that "in 1959 a little over 22 percent of the American population was poor; by 1969 only 12 percent was poor." Since then there has been little change, although poverty rose during the recession of 1975 and again during the recession of 1979.
An interesting aspect of this picture is the geographical distribution of poverty over this period. From 1959 to 1979, fourteen million Americans ceased being poor, and nine million of these were in the southern part of the United States. During the 1969-1979 decade, however, the number of poor people in the North and West rose by one-and-a-half million. Another significant detail reveals that the rate of poverty for black Americans in the North has changed only marginally in twenty years. The Economic Opportunity report tells us that "there are one million more black poor in the Northern and Western states today than in 1959." The general picture is very much the same for Americans of Hispanic origin. Big city poverty has been especially troublesome: New York City's poverty rate increased by about 25 percent in the sixties and late seventies; Philadelphia's increased by 38 percent, Chicago's by 47 percent.
Let me close these references to poverty statistics by recording that the 29.3 million Americans, who in 1980 lived below the poverty level, represented a 3.2 million increase over the previous year. This means that we are talking about a current, staggering human reality in deprivation.
If the cold statistical data are insufficient to convince us of the growing severity of poverty in our midst, we need only to look to human examples all around us. In particular, I would point to the hundreds of church-sponsored programs that provide emergency assistance to the poor. In recent months we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of the homeless and hungry, the destitute and the desperate, who show up on the doorsteps of church agencies, emergency shelters, and parish rectories.
Several months ago, for example, the doors Of Holy Ghost Church in Denver were opened at night because it was anticipated that thirty or forty people needed emergency shelter. Within a month the numbers swelled to hundreds of homeless men, women, and children sleeping in the pews of the church. In Detroit, at an emergency food center run by the Capuchin Fathers, the demand for assistance has doubled in the past year. Close to one thousand people are being served there every day. Examples like these could be provided from every major city.
There are some misconceptions about the poor that circulate widely and should be responded to directly. The most ugly of the misconceptions is that the poor do not want to work. This is a polite way of saying that they are lazy and shiftless and expect others to support them. The fact is that 17 percent of the poor work full time, and 13 percent work at some time during the typical year. What about the rest of them? Actually, over 70 percent of the poor simply cannot work--they are either too old, are severely disabled, are mothers with small children, or are themselves under sixteen years of age. This means that 90 percent of America's poor either work full time or are persons who, because of age or disability, simply cannot work.