In his State of the Union address Jan. 24, President Barack Obama talked about whether the United States must settle for being “a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
He added that “what’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values.”
People are definitely noticing the gap between rich and poor and consider it a problem, according to pollsters.
Two-thirds of a sampling of Americans told the Pew Research Center in December that there are strong or very strong conflicts between rich and poor in this country, up from 47 percent who said that two years ago. More than twice as many people describe the conflict as “very strong” as did so in July 2009, said the Pew study released Jan. 11.
And another survey released Feb. 2 that was conducted by Public Religion Research Institute for Religion News Service found that the gap between rich and poor was cited by voters it polled as the third most critical issue facing the country. Just under half, (49 percent) cited the gap as important, behind “jobs and unemployment,” cited by 83 percent, and the federal deficit, cited by 69 percent of the 1,005 voters polled.
But out in the parish food pantries and social service agencies where people in need seek help, the question is not “is the rich-poor gap a political issue?” or even “is the gap getting bigger?” It’s simply: “How do we take care of the people on the poor side of the line?”
Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs for Catholic Charities USA, said that although there are signs the economy is improving, many people are seeking basic support from church agencies.
“Demand hasn’t leveled off yet,” she said.
Ed Wnorowski, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Louisville, Ky., said the number of calls to a regional clearinghouse for social services nearly doubled between 2008 and 2009, from 3,719 to 6,255. The figure has remained well above 6,200 the following two years.
At the same time, donations to the society have been flat, meaning the same amount of money and donated goods has had to stretch further, Wnorowski said.
St. Vincent de Paul doesn’t track such statistics at the regional level, but Wnorowski had some anecdotes to reflect changes in what kind of people have recently joined the ranks of the needy.
For example, “among my large group of friends in their 50s, I know more than a dozen people who are unemployed,” he said. That includes one man who previously had a six-figure income who has been out of work for going on three years.
Linda Romine, communications director for the Louisville organization, said the director of a St. Vincent de Paul conference at one of the city’s most affluent parishes reported helping more upper middle-class and “solidly mddle-class” families in economic crisis.
The parish helps with mortgage payments and utility bills, Romine said in an email exchange with Catholic News Service. “They’re proud and embarrassed to ask for assistance, but they are in desperate situations.”
She gave examples of one family hit by a medical crisis that left the husband disabled and unable to work, and another family headed by a small-business owner whose company failed.
Wnorowski said the charity’s main effort to be sure it can meet needs has involved raising the profile of St. Vincent de Paul and its work, both to be sure people in need know it’s there and to attract donations. Agency-owned thrift stores around the region provide its main source of income.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, has for five years been consciously trying to change its sources of funding, said Heather Reynolds, executive director.
Seeing a trend for decreased government funding of social services, the agency’s board looked at how to offset that while helping clients get out of poverty permanently, she told CNS.
For instance, they turned a translation and interpretation service through Catholic Charities into a competitive business. The agency had long offered such services at below-market prices, Reynolds said. But it was turned into a profit-generating business, providing translators to hospitals, courts and other agencies, while paying a living wage to the translators — all clients of Catholic Charities.
“We’ve gotten many clients out of poverty,” Reynolds said, while generating $200,000 worth of profit that goes back into Catholic Charities.
Another small business started by Catholic Charities is Worn, which employs refugee women — most from Burma (Myanmar) and Bhutan — to knit intricate scarves. The scarves are sold through local boutiques, at “scarf parties” and via the website www.wornforpeace.com, at prices ranging from $58 to $118.
“Our 2011 goal was to sell 500 scarves,” Reynolds said. “We sold just under 1,500.” The 20 knitters who make them are paid a piece rate that allows a woman who makes six scarves a week — about 18 hours of work — to pay a month’s rent from her earnings, she explained.
As a result of such new directions, the agency’s budget has gone from $9 million, 80 percent of which came from government funding six years ago to $19.5 million, 53 percent of which comes from government funding, Reynolds said.
“Our government funding has not decreased but we have become focused on advancement and getting people out of poverty,” she said.