Catholic Charities reports millions more in poverty

by Jerry Filteau

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A Catholic Charities USA sign is displayed during the release of the organization's 2009 survey of services Sept. 21 in Washington. (CNS photos/Bob Roller)

WASHINGTON -- On the heels of a U.S. Census Bureau report that the number of Americans living in poverty soared by nearly 4 million last year, Catholic Charities USA said that its member agencies served a record 9.2 million clients in 2009 -- up 7.5 percent from the year before.

According to the Catholic Charities USA annual report released Sept. 21, 171 diocesan Catholic Charities agencies and their affiliates spent nearly $4.28 billion serving people in need, about 7 percent more than in 2008. Their revenue was about $4.14 billion, two-thirds of it from federal, state or local government funding.

The Census Bureau said the number of poor people in the United States climbed from 39.8 million in 2008 to 43.6 million in 2009, the highest number since the government began gathering poverty data in 1959. This means one in every seven people in the nation -- 14.3 percent -- was beneath the poverty line last year, the highest percentage since 1994.

The current poverty line is $22,050 in pre-tax income for a family of four. It is $10,830 for a single person.

Children were the hardest-hit by the recession -- 20 percent of them, or one in every five, were living in poverty last year, the bureau said.

In addition, the bureau said the number of people without health insurance rose from 46.3 million in 2008 to a record 50.7 million last year. This was mainly because 6.5 million Americans lost private insurance when they lost their jobs or their employers stopped providing health benefits.

Sr. Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity and president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said the 9.4 percent increase in uninsured in a single year “provides fresh evidence that health reform was a necessary and important step toward creating a system that works for everyone.”

The Catholic Charities USA 2009 survey report came out five days after the new census bureau report on poverty.

Fr. Larry Snyder, Catholic Charities USA president and CEO, put the dramatic poverty increases and growth in the agency’s activity in context.

“Two years ago this month, the world as we knew it came crashing down around us,” he told reporters and others gathered for the release of the survey report. “The world’s strongest economy was reduced to a shadow of its former self. Since then, millions of jobs have been lost and millions more people have been thrust into poverty. The daily lives of Americans have changed -- from building their dreams to a painful confrontation of the reality of continued economic struggle.”

He said the new poverty numbers shocked some people, but Catholic Charities workers “see the toll of poverty up close every day. We’re all too familiar with these numbers.”

He said the 2009 increases in Catholic Charities services came atop similar increases in 2008: The number of clients served has climbed 16 percent in just the last two years, more than the 12 percent it rose in the preceding five years.

Behind the poverty and aid statistics, he said, are human beings -- “people who go to bed at night without a home to call their own, children who wake up in the morning wondering where their next meal will come from.”

Despite the recessionary leap in poverty, Snyder said, “I firmly believe that as we rebuild America, we can still put the country on a path to cut poverty in half by the year 2020. This will not be easy, but it is well within our God-given abilities and our God-given resources.”

“We must moralize the markets that stand in the center of our economy and not divorce ethics from our economic system,” he said.

He also called for updating and refining the definition of poverty, saying that the “antiquated 1960s approximation of a family’s food budget” to determine the poverty threshold is like “still using carbon paper as copy technology.”

The figure of 9.2 million Catholic Charities clients is “unduplicated” -- that is, a client who receives several services is counted as just one client. If clients who received more than one kind of service are counted under each type of service provided, the number rises to just under 15 million, up from 13.9 million the year before.

Of these, nearly half -- 7.2 million -- received food services. That figure was up 15 percent from the nearly 6.3 million who received food aid from Catholic Charities in 2008.

Catholic Charities food banks and pantries served nearly 3.3 million people, and soup kitchens and other dining services served another 3.1 million. About 840,000 received home-delivered meals or other forms of food aid.

Nearly 4 million people received services aimed at strengthening communities, such as social support, education and neighborhood services. That was up from 3.6 million the year before.

More than 1.9 million got help with basic needs other than food -- clothing, utilities, prescriptions, financial assistance and the like. In 2008 the figure was 1.7 million.

Family-strengthening services, such counseling, mental health, immigration, refugee, pregnancy and adoption services, assisted nearly 1.1 million people, about the same as the year before.

The number of clients receiving disaster-related services -- which had spiked dramatically in the years following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- dropped from 332,000 in 2008 to just under 100,000 last year, about 10 percent above the level in 2004.

Kim Palmisano, president of Captain Jonathan’s Seafood in Barataria, La., and a panelist at the session releasing the survey, described the importance of Catholic Charities disaster-related services in personal terms.

She and her husband have four shrimp trawlers and the seafood market. After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, she said, “we didn’t have a shrimp season this year. We closed down our seafood market. ... I have three children. We didn’t know how long before we would be going back to work.”

They had just gone into debt to buy their newest, best trawler, which was to be the key to a more secure financial future, and now they couldn’t shrimp with it, she said.

She said Catholic Charities organized a relief operation from a local Catholic parish center. “They were there, five days a week,” offering counseling and assistance to the small community that relies on fishing and shrimping for its economy, she said.

“They had food vouchers for us,” she added. “Every Monday you could go get a food voucher. They had utility assistance to help us pay our electric bills. They were there up until this week. This is the last week, but they were there for three months, every day.”

Another area where Catholic Charities agencies served fewer clients in 2009 (500,000) than in 2008 (600,000) was in housing services.

Ironically, that is because homelessness was worse in 2009 than the year before, said Jean Beil, Catholic Charities’ senior vice president for programs and services.

Beil said that some Catholic Charities housing services are up, such as assistance in rent and mortgage payments and housing counseling and foreclosure mitigation, but the figures for clients served by emergency shelters or temporary residences are down.

“These are numbers not of bed-nights, but [of] people who are served,” she said, “and the folks that are staying in shelters these days are staying longer in shelters because they can’t find housing” -- occupying space that otherwise would have been taken by new clients, and thereby decreasing the total number of clients served last year.

[Jerry Filteau is NCR Washington correspondent.]

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