Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Beyond Aid: Strategies for Fighting Poverty

In part because of the presidential election, we’ve been hearing more lately about why race matters in American culture, and here in Youngstown. And people have been talking nonstop in the last few weeks about the economy. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking about both, with Brian Corbin, Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Youngstown.

Most of the recent talk about the economy has focused on Wall Street, with some attention to Main Street but almost no recognition of those who live close to the street – those who struggle to get by every day. As part of its effort to move from providing aid to the poor to helping people get out of poverty, Catholic Charities USA has produced a very readable and very powerful overview of the relationship between poverty and racism, arguing that we cannot end poverty unless we address the underlying structural inequalities of American society, inequalities that are reinforced by racism. The booklet describes poverty and racism as “overlapping threats,” and it challenges white people, even those who are themselves struggling economically, to face and resist the ways that white privilege creates opportunities for them while putting up obstacles for people of color. The booklet reminds us that even if we don’t discriminate against others or hold prejudicial attitudes, we benefit from and are therefore complicit in the institutional racism that runs deep in American culture. Institutional racism gives us an unequal educational system, unequal access to credit and employment, and more.

Too often, when I talk with people about poverty and inequality, they blame those who are poor for not working hard enough. The hard truth is this: just as Vicki Escarra told us last week, most of those who are in poverty have jobs. Many work very hard, sometimes at more than one job. Some are trying to get an education to qualify for a better job. They just don’t earn enough to pay for housing, feed their families, cover health emergencies (because they rarely have health insurance), or respond effectively to other crises.

That’s part of what Catholic Charities of Youngstown found when they talked with the people they serve. When asked why it’s so hard to get out of poverty, people cited seemingly simple things: lack of access to, which can make it difficult to get to a jobs, to get their kids to school, to get to a grocery store with reasonable prices. Poor people also have limited access to banks, so when they need extra money, they can’t use credit or take out a loan, except from a business that charges high rates for short-term loans. In other words, people are poor not because they won’t work but because the system works against them.

In part because of what they learned from talking with those in need, Catholic Charities supported the bill in the Ohio legislature that placed limits on so-called “payday” lending, and they’re working on projects to create community credit unions. Other projects aim to provide better health care to the uninsured, as I’ll discuss with Molly Seals from Humility of Mary Health Partners later this fall. You can learn more about how we can fight the causes of poverty in a report by the Ohio Anti-Poverty Task Force. Among other recommendations, they suggest strategies to ease access to services like food stamps, job training, and health care.

Given what’s happening on Wall Street these days, we’re likely to see even more people falling into poverty. The efforts of Catholic Charities, the Governor’s task force, and others can help us think clearly about how to respond.

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