America’s Social Sin: Our Responsibility to the Poor

From the September 24, 1982 Issue

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. 

Associated with this myth about the poor being lazy is the notion that they spend their money more frivolously than anyone else. On the contrary, studies indicate that the poor spend most of their money on the necessities of life--88 percent for food, clothing, medical care, and shelter. This is actually a higher percentage than those who have more money. A second misconception sees the poverty picture in racial terms--the poor are mostly black. The truth is that almost 70 percent of the poor are white Americans. Furthermore, a large percentage of those who are poor live in rural areas, contrary to the popular perception that poverty is confined to the inner city. 

Up until now, we have been talking about the "official" poor--those eligible for certain welfare programs. There are, however, millions of Americans who are just above the poverty line, those who manage to get by as long as they can continue to work. Here the specter of unemployment appears with all the harsh realities that follow in its wake. As I write these words in the fourth month of 1982, our government figures for current unemployment tell us that more than ten million Americans are out of work. This means that 9 percent of the labor force in the United States is without a job--the highest percentages since the Depression. Here is where the social sin of poverty breeds its most noxious by-products. 

Unemployment has an immediate psychological impact on the human person, assaulting hisself-respect and indeed his personal human dignity. Pope John Paul II reminded us in his encyclical on work: "Work is a good thing for man--a good thing for his humanity--because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes 'more a human being’."

Significant changes in self-esteem occur when unemployment is extended over any lengthy period, and studies indicate that its effects are most pronounced in workers in low-level employment. Thus those least able to cope with it are the ones most often afflicted with joblessness. Not merely emotional malaise, but serious mental health disorders can take their origin in loss of employment. One study found that a one percent increase in the jobless rate could be expected to increase psychiatric admissions by 3.4 percent. Other studies make it unmistakably clear that loss of employment is linked to increased suicide, so much so that some researchers have claimed that the suicide rate is one of the more reliable indicators of a change in the economy. 

These destructive effects on the human person emphasize the moral dimensions of both poverty and unemployment. To regard these as mere economic or social phenomena is to miss their real significance. They are assaults on men and women that crush the human spirit and render the victims ever more vulnerable to almost any of the "shocks that flesh is heir to." 

Beyond all this, one must take some measure of what poverty and joblessness do to family life. When a person's need and fight to work go unmet and unacknowledged, the consequences are both dire and predictable. Here again the unemployed--or the marginally employed in low income and unstable jobs--are the most easily stricken. Studies verify the increase in marital dissatisfaction and the deterioration of family relations in jobless family situations. This is especially true among younger families and those with preschool children, and it is aggravated as unemployment is extended. Nothing more graphically indicates the rise in family tensions than abusive behavior. Researchers find joblessness a crucial component in the incidence of "battered wives" and abused children. Declines in such indicators as school attendance and scholastic achievement also measure family tensions in the home, and these effects live on in another generation. 

If one seeks further evidence to document the effects of the social sin of poverty and its step-sister, unemployment, a glance at studies in criminal justice will suffice. Both crimes against property and crimes of violence are strongly linked to unemployment and underemployment. One study estimated "that one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate increased state prison admissions by about four percent." Similar links have been demonstrated in the area of juvenile delinquency. An increase in the use of narcotics and alcohol has also been observed, a strong factor in relation to both crimes against property and violence. 

When a person's need and fight to work go unmet and unacknowledged, the consequences are both dire and predictable. Here again the unemployed--or the marginally employed in low income and unstable jobs--are the most easily stricken.

In the face of of the massive evidence, of which we have mentioned only a fraction, can any citizen--can any Christian--be complacent? Is it enough to recite once again the sad statistics of poverty and unemployment and their deadly effects on millions of Americans? Can we leave the task of healing to the political leaders, the social scientists, and the economists alone? I think not. We have a role to play in the rescue of America, the fate of the American worker, and the future of America's poor. Our voice must be heard, not just in pleas for charity for those in want, but in cries of justice for the poor. We must not merely mourn for the jobless, we must see their fight to work fulfilled in fact. 

But how do we do it? More specifically, what is our role as church in addressing the problem? Of course the church has a rich tradition of social teaching. Beginning with Pope Leo Xlll's Rerum Novarum in 1891, there has been a continual development in this area. This teaching, reflected so clearly in papal, conciliar, and synodal documents, is rooted in the dignity of the human person who is created in God' s image and likeness and the rights and obligations which flow from that dignity. Unfortunately, this body of thought is not so well known, or at least it does not seem to make as much of an impact, as many other teachings. It is critically important, therefore, that we bring this teaching, together with its far reaching implications, into the public debate. The church does not claim any special expertise in the political, economic, or social order, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us, its mission is religious. But its social teaching does provide an indispensable framework within which to make a moral analysis of today's problems. It also can give the direction and motivation needed to work out viable solutions. 

One reason why the church's social teaching needs more exposure at this time is that it clearly spells out what 'the basic fights of people are, as well as the responsibility of the various elements of society, both private and public, to protect those rights. In recent months an increasing amount of emphasis has been placed on the responsibility of the private sector and, in particular, the churches, to provide for the needs of the poor. For example, in one of the Cincinnati dailies, an editorial writer said recently in a signed column: "Fundamental human needs need not be the concern of governments, but of individuals, of families, of communities, and of charitable and religious organizations." Earlier this year the Reagan administration said that if each church adopted ten poor families, we could eliminate all government welfare in this country.

I am the first to admit that the churches, as well as all segments of the private sector, need to do more, and I will return to that point further on. But I wish to affirm as forcefully as I can that government also has a responsibility from which it cannot escape. Important as voluntarism is, it cannot alone resolve the problem of poverty. In his 1979 address to the United Nations, Pope John Paul II spoke about the need for creative collaboration among nations to overcome the global causes of poverty. That evening, in his homily at the Mass in Yankee Stadium, he challenged American Catholics in a very direct way. He first talked about the charitable work of the church, which he commended and encouraged. Then he added: 

But this is not enough. Within the framework of your national institutions and in cooperation with all your compatriots, you will also want to seek out the structural reasons which foster or cause the different forms of poverty in the world and your own country, so that you can apply the proper remedies. You will not allow yourselves to be intimidated or discouraged by oversimplified explanations, which are more ideological than scientific, explanations which try to account for a complex evil by some single cause. But neither will you recoil before the reforms--even profound ones--of attitudes and structures that may prove necessary in order to recreate over and over again the conditions needed by the disadvantaged if they are to have a fresh chance in the hard struggle of life.

These powerful words call not merely for more charity but also justice. They are rooted in the thinking of Pope John XXIII who, in Mater et Magistra, addressed the issue of the role of government in developing public policy in two crucial sentences: "To safeguard the inviolable rights of the human person and to facilitate the fulfillment of his duties, should be the essential office of every public authority .... One of the fundamental duties of civil authorities is to coordinate social relations in such fashion that the exercise of a person's rights does not threaten others in the exercise of their own rights nor hinder in fulfillment of their duties." 

It is clear, then, that there are two sides of the coin. The common good, which civil society is obligated to defend and promote, requires that the individual's rights be respected. But it also requires the public authority to take action as needed and appropriate to defend those fights.

It is important I believe, that we assume a position of advocacy for the poor, by insisting on a just economic and social order and by providing for their immediate needs. This is a work of justice and charity. The Latin American bishops at Puebla spoke about a "preferential option" for the poor. "We affirm," they said, "the need for conversion on the part of the whole Church to a preferential option for the poor, an option aimed at their integral liberation." Such a preferential option would seem to call for the following.. 

  1. In all matters of public policy, but especially those affecting the poor, we must insist on the truth. The problems are so complex that it is difficult enough to arrive at a clear analysis of their causes and possible solutions. We must, therefore, demand that the facts not be slanted or manipulated for political, ideological, or personal motives, as so often happens in the political process today. The urgency of the situation demands that everyone rise above the prejudices, divisions, and myths which delay solutions or make them impossible. Insisting on the truth--both in analyzing the facts and presenting the consequences of the proposed solutions-- will bring about a clarity that will be immensely helpful.
  2. As a church, as I indicated before, we do not have any special expertise in the political, social, and economic orders. While all may share a common goal, there may be a number of legitimate ways to achieve it. Moreover, we must acknowledge that there are real problems and limitations which must be taken into account. For example, there is no doubt that the United States presently faces a serious economic crisis which will probably not improve significantly for some time. The church's specific contribution to the public debate about priorities and particular programs or legislation, therefore, must be more in the form of principles which should serve as the criteria for evaluating and developing public policy. In 1975, the American bishops outlined seven such principles which should guide our citizens and policy makers as we plan and provide for the human rights and dignity of all our people. Each flows from the church's social teaching as it has evolved over the past ninety years. All are so essential to the issue of poverty that they deserve repetition: 
  • Economic activity should be governed by justice and be carried out within the limits of morality. It must serve people's needs. 
  • The right to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one's family belongs to everyone. 
  • Economic prosperity is to be assessed not so much from the sum total of goods and wealth possessed as from the distribution of goods according to norms of justice. 
  • Opportunities to work must be provided for those who are able and willing to work. Every person has the right to useful employment, to just wages, and to adequate assistance in case of real need. 
  • Economic development must not be left to the sole judgment of a few persons or groups possessing excessive economic power, or to the political community alone. On the contrary, at every level the largest possible number of people should have an active share in directing that development. 
  • A just and equitable system of taxation requires assessment according to ability to pay. 
  • Government must play a role in the economic activity of its citizens. Indeed, it should promote in a suitable manner the production of a sufficient supply of material goods. Moreover, it should safeguard the rights of all citizens and help them find opportunities for employment. 

The church as an institution must find new ways of increasing its own charitable outreach to the poor. There is no doubt that we are already doing a great deal. In every diocese, a sizable portion of the resources are earmarked for the poor and disadvantaged. But the needs are increasing.

What do we do? I do not have any ready answers in the form of specific programs or strategies. But I do think that the growing crisis requires a special effort on our part. We simply cannot proceed on a "business as usual" basis. We must examine our priorities to see what adjustments might be needed. To succeed in our efforts, much more needs to be done to sensitize our people to their responsibilities. Sometimes, because of publicized abuses of welfare programs (which frequently are attributable to those who deliver the services rather than the recipients), people seem ready to write off all the poor as lazy or shiftless and undeserving of any help. It is also true that even the suburban parishes do not always find it easy to make ends meet today. Still, when one sees how much money they can raise for their own special projects, one must wonder about their priorities. I believe the time has come for those of us who are in leadership positions to Challenge our people to be more sensitive and responsive to the needs of the poor.

The church as an institution must find new ways of increasing its own charitable outreach to the poor. There is no doubt that we are already doing a great deal. In every diocese, a sizable portion of the resources are earmarked for the poor and disadvantaged. But the needs are increasing. What do we do?

The Holy Father put it very bluntly in his Yankee Stadium homily.

"We cannot stand idly by," he said, enjoying our own riches and freedom, if, in any place, the Lazarus of the twentieth century stands at our doors. In the light of the parable of Christ, riches and freedom mean a special responsibility. Riches and freedom create a special obligation, And so, in the name of the solidarity that binds us all together in a common humanity, I again proclaim the dignity of every human person: the rich man and Lazarus are both human beings, both of them actually created in the image and likeness of God, both of them equally redeemed by Christ, at a great price, the price of 'the precious blood of Christ' (1 Pt. l'19). 

Finally, in what may be the most difficult yet potentially most useful step of all, I believe the church should undertake--and encourage others to undertake -- a fresh appraisal of poverty: its causes, its effects upon the poor and non-poor alike, and its solutions. 

  • Traditionally, we have regarded America as a land of opportunity, and so it has proved to be for many. Yet for others this is not the case. Indeed, some seem locked in an intergenerational prison of poverty. What are the systems, the structures, the attitudes and practices which cause this state of affairs, and how can they be changed? 
  • Are the schools and other agents of socialization breaking down class barriers in our society--or is it possible that, without intending it, they are helping to create a new elite class, while at the same time perpetuating and reinforcing the existence of an underclass mired in poverty and despair? 
  • What is being done to prepare the poor and the near-poor and their children for advancement in the emerging American service economy, which places a declining premium on physical labor and a rising value on relatively sophisticated skills? How adequate are schools and other educational institutions, as well as public and private anti-poverty efforts, in this regard? 
  • How should the church carry out its duty to make a preferential option for the poor, in light of the fact that its efforts tend to become counterproductive to the extent they are perceived as merely "political" in nature? How, in other words, can we speak to real issues--employment, housing, education, federal budget, and the rest--without being ignored or resisted by precisely those whom we need to reach and persuade?

These are complex, difficult questions, but I believe the church should lead the way in raising them and encouraging the search for answers. Our preferential option for the poor must be as informed as it is wholehearted, as realistic as it is sincere, as oriented to the eradication of poverty as to its relief, and rooted at all times in a vision of the integral dignity of the human person. For this purpose let us make our own the conviction of Pope John Paul If, that "such a task is not an impossible one" and also that "this difficult road of the indispensable transformation of the structures of economic life is one on which it will not be easy to go forward without the intervention of a true conversion of mind, will, and heart." 

MOST REVEREND JOSEPH L. BERNARDIN is the newly-installed archbishop of Chicago. This article is based on a talk given at Brooklyn' s St. James Cathedral last spring.

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