Dear Fellow Vincentians,
Last month, we paused to celebrate Independence Day. As Americans, we have so much for which to be grateful! Since its inception, through good times and bad, our nation has been and continues to be great. As many remind, the cost of our freedom is to defend our core beliefs and institutions from any and all threats. But, even then, a growing number of our citizens continue to fall through our social net. Their existence has become a daily struggle just to survive the crushing yoke of chronic poverty. It creates an existence that, for a variety of reasons, has become increasingly difficult to escape.
Last month, I discussed brief perspectives from our Rule as well as shared a courageous comment from then – Senator Robert F. Kennedy regarding the “violence of institutions” that so appallingly and disproportionately impacts the poor. Our Rule 7 urges us to be the voice for the voiceless. This month, I call your attention to the balance of that rule which focuses on striving for a more equitable society for all.
1. Rule 7 – Work for Social Justice
Our Rule is so inspirational. I am particularly motivated by Section 7, Part I. It specifically instructs that Vincentians not only alleviate need, but identify unjust structures that cause poverty and contribute to eliminating it. It then recognizes that because Jesus particularly identified with those who were excluded from society, Vincentians should strive for a more equitable society that promotes a more equitable and compassionate social order for all. It expressly directs that where injustice, inequality, poverty, or exclusion exists and are caused by unjust economic, political, or social structures or to inadequate or unjust legislation, our Society should speak out and demand improvements. Indeed, our Rule encourages us to see issues of social justice from the perspective of our neighbors in need who suffer from injustice.
2. Injustice, Inequality & Poverty
On July 12th, the White House reported that our nation’s War on Poverty has been “largely” won (i.e. it’s over). After all, unemployment has dropped to record lows, our stock market continues to climb, and we are enjoying the longest period of economic growth in U.S. history. In light of these positive developments, the number of neighbors in need who find themselves suffering from injustice, inequality, and poverty surely must be declining.
According to the Brookings Institution, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) says that the number of Americans living in poverty (i.e. below $25,100. annual income for a family of four) has risen and has continued to rise since 2010.
Merely giving a job, particularly one that pays minimum wage, to a person HHS classifies as poor is not a stable, sustainable solution unless myriad other issues are also adequately addressed. By way of example, before sustainable solutions can be claimed, housing instability, adequate and reliable public transportation, trustworthy child care, addiction rehabilitation and counselling, competitive educational achievement, and many other crucial issues need to be adequately addressed. Few, if any, are, however. As a result, notwithstanding very positive developments, we are witnessing an increase in poverty, inequality, and injustice.
The facts are truly startling. Here is just a sampling of recently released data.
Last month, the United Nations released a report on poverty in the United States. Among many other things, it found that:
i) 40 million Americans live in poverty;
ii) 18.5 million live in extreme poverty; and
iii) Among OECD states, our nation has the highest youth poverty rate and the highest infant mortality rate.
According to Forbes Magazine, the report specifically found that our nation is failing the poor. The report expressly references last year’s tax bill and significant increases in defense spending as reasons why aid to those in need has been and continues to be significantly reduced. Clearly, tax relief and defense spending- both governmental choices – all but mandates painful rollbacks of programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP – and housing vouchers for children. We have also witnessed the constructive repeal of the Affordable Care Act. As Senator Kennedy spoke about fifty years ago, the impact of this “violence of institutions” on the voiceless poor – 40 million in number – continues to grow.
The specialist who led the United Nations report put it this way, “. . . the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not employed, and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.” Section 7 of our Rule – “where injustice, inequality, poverty, or exclusion exists caused by unjust economic, political, or social structures or to inadequate or unjust legislation, our Society should speak out and demand improvements” – clearly comes to mind.
The United Nations report concludes that, in light of our nation having the lowest social mobility rate of any rich country, the American Dream is rapidly becoming for many the American Illusion. We should strive to preserve our American Dream for all citizens. We may never “get there”. But striving to get there will define who we are and keep us faithful to our nation’s express, core beliefs. Indeed, the freedom and economic prosperity that we just paused to celebrate should not be determined by the zip code in which one lives.
B. The State of Michigan
Last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its 2018 Kids Count Data Book. In regard to Michigan, the book reveals that:
i) More than 1 in 5 Michigan children live in poverty;
ii) Michigan ranks 33rd in overall child well being (i.e. health, education, economic status, family and community); and
iii) 69% of its eighth graders are not proficient in math and 68% of its fourth graders are not proficient in reading.
Legions of our children face significant barriers to development. In that regard, the Michigan Director of the Kids Count Data Book has recently expressed grave concern that roughly 62,000 of our state’s children may not even be counted in the next cycle for determining federal funding (i.e. it may get worse for our poor).
C) The City of Detroit
According to a newly released book, “The Divided City”, by Alan Mallach, a well known urban expert, the poverty rate in Detroit remains stubbornly close to 40% and almost one-half of working age people remain out of the workforce. Poverty is on the rise. Mr. Mallach’s book further points out that:
i) Tens of thousands of home foreclosures have occurred due, in part, to unrealistically high tax bills (e.g. the Detroit Land Bank owns a nation leading 33,000 vacant houses, of which an estimated 4500 are occupied by squatters);
ii) Noteworthy Downtown revitalization has not (and may not) spread to outlying city neighborhoods; and
iii) Inequality between races and between rich and poor is rising at an alarming rate.
Poverty exists throughout our Archdiocese, not just in Detroit. These facts merely serve as a disturbing reminder of how many of our neighbors remain in need. These are concerning trends that affect more than forty million fellow Americans.
The War on Poverty should not be over unless and until all are eradicated from poverty.
3. Our Vincentian Mission
Unquestionably, even though we can and will do more, our Society has heard and continues to hear the cry of the poor. As evidenced herein, however, that call is most assuredly growing ever louder.
Through our differentiating home visits and community outreach programs, Detroit Council Vincentians are making a critical difference in peoples’ lives at particularly challenging moments. Last year alone, we touched personally more than 300,000 neighbors with one of our programs. Moreover, we conducted 45,000 home visits that helped more than 180,000 men, women, and children in need. How inspirational! Our story is their stories.
A few weeks ago, our staff circulated to District and Conference Presidents the attached letter and form aimed at capturing stories about how we have helped neighbors in need (see attached). WE NEED YOUR HELP to capture other stories regarding how we have helped others. Residents of our six county community and prospective donors need to better understand what we do and how we transform lives. We will share such stories in a very respectful, dignified way (e.g. changing names).
Please review the attached and forward to Debbie Jackson any Vincentian experiences that you have had helping others. Thank you in advance. Let our service inspire us and others!
At Masses on July 21st, the Responsorial Psalm pled, “Do not forget the Poor, O Lord”. I do not worry about Jesus abandoning the poor. The more apt question is, in light of these above- referenced, sobering facts about our great nation, our great state, and our great city, will we? If we stay mission-focused and thereby continue to grow in holiness, promote friendship, and serve the poor as we do, not a chance.
Not surprisingly, minds differ on how best to eradicate poverty. But for as long as poverty exists, and it surely still does, our hearts should not. Vincentians see with their hearts. We should never become comfortably numb to the plight of our neighbors in need. Rather than judge, let us continue to respond to their needs with empathy, compassion, and Vincentian spirit.
Thanks, All. God bless.
Daniel P. Malone