By Fr. Fred Kammer, SJ
Presented to the for Louisiana Interchurch Conference, 41st Annual Assembly on March 14, 2011, in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Scripture and Poverty
Consideration of poverty from a Christian perspective begins with the foundation that each person is both sacred and social, created in God’s image, and destined to share in the goods of the earth as part of a community of justice and mercy. From the time of the Deuteronomic laws, the covenant, and the prophets, there was special mention of the poor and their privileged place in the community. The Hebrew word for the poor is the anawim, the little ones, originally those “overwhelmed by want.”  In the Old Testament, this group was primarily widows, orphans, and strangers (refugees, migrants, immigrants). They are poor and powerless. Their poverty was often the result of unjust oppression. As such, they comprised “Yahweh’s poor.” The role of the prophets was particularly focused on their well being in their denouncing injustice and announcing justice.
The Lord frequently warned the Israelites about their duty to the poor: "You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan" (Exod 22:20-22). Their special status reflected a combination of powerlessness, poverty, and systemic exclusion from the community.
Care for the anawim became the test of Israel’s faithfulness. The word used to reflect the community’s duty to the poor is “justice.” Instead of being recipients of optional charity or pious generosity, the poor became the measure of Israel’s fidelity to the Lord. Their right treatment lay at the heart of biblical justice and righteousness. Not caring for the poor was infidelity to God, because people who forgot the poor no longer really believed in Yahweh revealed as God of the people, the community, dwelling among them and passionately concerned for their welfare, especially for the poor.
Jesus fulfills this tradition in his teaching and actions. His three “great parables”—according to Pope Benedict—are about justice and the poor: the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, and the dramatic judgment scene in Matthew 25.  In this judgment drama Jesus emphatically identifies himself with the poor and measures individuals and nations by our deeds of justice and mercy.
Preferential Love for Poor and Oppressed
Today, Christian commentators use anawim in a developed sense that explicitly includes four groups: widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor. All four suffer the interconnection of poverty, powerlessness, and exclusion; and they are alike in the oppression they often suffer. Believers are charged to see to it that the anawim are not without the means to meet their basic needs, nor are they to be excluded from the community or its decision-making by their lack of means. If the poor around us now are uncared for, we too cannot know the one who says, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” This God-of-the-community gave creation to us as goodness to be shared as stewards—not owners. If we forget the poor, we have forgotten God and our own radical interconnectedness: to God as life-giver and to one another as sisters and brothers, the two great commandments of Jesus. In the Catholic Catechism, it now proclaims “a preferential love on the part of the Church” for those oppressed by poverty. 
Responses to Poverty
The implications drawn out over the centuries are rich. As the U.S. Catholic bishops put it, "the first line of attack against poverty must be to build and sustain a healthy economy that provides employment opportunities at just wages for all adults who are able to work."  In this they highlight the tradition’s emphasis on a “family wage.” The Catechism explains, "everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community."  Related emphases in the tradition stress the importance of: (1) unions as a means to assure a fair wage, protect workers, and allow them to exercise their rights to participate in society and in the workplace; (2) employee benefits such as retirement benefits, unemployment compensation, workers compensation, and so forth; (3) rights to emigrate to find work; (4) the evils of workplace discrimination; (5) care for those who are unemployed or unable to work due to age, disability, and care of children; and (6) the right to health care.
As our understanding of poverty sees it to be connected to powerlessness and non-participation in society, so Christian reflection about responding to poverty has grown from simple assistance with a meal or shelter to encompass an array of necessary responses: advocacy for social and economic change; empowerment of individuals and groups; political participation and economic development so people can be “artisans of their own destiny”; micro-enterprise loans; and the importance of “property” for the poor in multiple senses of land, capital, education, and, now, technological know-how.
In their 1986 book-length pastoral letter Economic Justice for All the US Catholic bishops reminded us of the importance of confronting poverty in these words:
Dealing with poverty is not a luxury to which our nation can attend when it finds the time and resources. Rather, it is a moral imperative of the highest priority. 
But what does it mean to speak of poverty in the United States? Drawing on the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, the bishops explained it this way, “By poverty, we are referring here to the lack of sufficient material resources required for a decent life.”  Then, in the next sentence, they acknowledge the complexity of the question, “We use the government’s definition of poverty, although we recognize its limits.” And a footnote introduces elements of the national debate about what we call “the poverty line.”
The current poverty line measure was developed in the Social Security Administration in the early 1960s by research analyst Mollie Orshansky. It was based on surveys in the prior decade—the 1950s—regarding American families and their food consumption. The poverty level was set at three times a subsistence food budget, based on the experience that families at that time spent one-third of their income on food. The poverty line is still calculated on that basis and adjusted for family size. The 2011 measure is $18,530 dollars for a family of three and $22,350 for a family of four.
In four decades, however, food costs have declined dramatically as a percentage of the average family budget, now being only 17%.  Other costs such as child care, housing, health care, education, and transportation now consume a much larger part of the average family budget. Additional factors also have contributed to debate about the official poverty line: it only considers actual cash income, not other resources such as food stamps/SNAP, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), housing subsidies, and a variety of federal and state health programs; and it does not reflect the variations in cost-of-living, especially housing costs, across the country.
In the early 1990s, Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to tackle the question of the adequacy of the Orshansky standard (which she herself questioned). Based on the work of an expert panel, NAS released recommendations for a new measure in 1995. Those recommendations included:
In 2009, legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress—the Measuring American Poverty (MAP) Act of 2009—to require the Census Bureau to develop a modern poverty measure. [Some states and cities also are looking at measures of poverty for their populations.]
In a 2009 release, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) carried out the calculations under two versions of the NAS standards—one with the regional adjustments for housing and utilities and the other without it—and compared them to the current poverty standard. Under this scenario, there are a number of interesting results:
A look at Louisiana under the three measures shows variations in the percentage of the population “in poverty” as follows: 
Current Poverty Line
|NAS Recommended Measure||
|NAS Measure with Regional Adjustment||14.1%||12.5%||14.5%||14.6%||18.3%||16.4%|
Of course, measuring poverty is only useful if there is a resolve on the part of policy-makers, community leaders, government, non-profits, businesses, voters, and the poor themselves to do something about the level of poverty, however measured. Income measures alone also can lead to a narrow view of responses that focuses only on economic remedies that result in measureable income improvements.
A New Paradigm
Some argue that simply “tweaking” a monetary measure of poverty fails to grasp the breadth of human life, the wider impacts of poverty, and the necessarily broad range of essential responses to poverty. They call for a paradigm shift in our measures of poverty. While there are a variety of such measures, the one which has gained acceptance on an international scale is the Human Development Report and its Human Development Index adopted by the United Nations Development Programme in 1990. The focus here obviously is more on “human development” than “poverty,” drawing on the work of economist Mahbub ul Haq at the World Bank in the 1970s.
Dr. Haq argued that existing measures of human progress failed to account for the true purpose of development—to improve people’s lives. In particular, he believed that the commonly used measure of Gross Domestic Product failed to adequately measure well-being. 
The index developed by Dr. Haq and others focuses on three key dimensions—a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. This is a narrower focus than the full-blown human development categories, but covers key measureable markers.
For each dimension there is a respective “index” built on certain indicators and together these indices lead to an overall human development index. The report explains the measures used in the US context:
The overall approach shifts our attention from “how the economy is doing” to “how the people are doing.” In this context the definition of poverty shifts from a lack of income or material goods to “a lack of basic capabilities for sustaining a tolerable life.”  The US report explains further:
Human poverty is often closely related to a lack of money and material goods. But the loss of dignity that accompanies income poverty also stems from a sense of powerlessnessness to change one’s living conditions, a lack of autonomy and control over many crucial decisions, and a feeling that one is marginalized or excluded politically, socially or psychologically—and thus deprived of participation, choices, and opportunities. 
The human development approach has now been applied to the US context in the American Human Development Report 2008-2009 and, most recently, has led to two lengthy state reports, one on Mississippi  and the other on Louisiana.  The index approach combines an array of key human-centered indicators through the three dimensions into a single number. For the US that number is 5.06, ranking 12th among 177 nations now measured by the system. Within the US, it is broken down in turn by state and congressional district, as well as by gender, race, and ethnicity. The human development approach also provides a range of additional information on economic, political, social, military, and environmental issues.
The authors of the US report note that the country has made great progress over the past decades on a variety of fronts and possesses enormous resources to do so. Yet, over twenty-five years from 1980 to 2005, in terms of the human development measure we have dropped from 2nd among the top ranked countries in the world to 12th!  Our progress did not match that of other nations who have been more determined and efficient in transforming improved national income into improved health and education outcomes.
Among the individual states, Connecticut (scoring 6.37) and Massachusetts (6.27) rank first and second. States in the South generally rank low because they have low life expectancy, poor education, and low incomes. Alabama (3.98), Louisiana (3.85), and Mississippi (3.58) rank among the bottom five. A more detailed look at Louisiana and the Gulf South states and their ranking (among the 50 states and the District of Columbia) follows:
|Rank||HD Index||Health Index||Education Index||Income Index|
The Louisiana state report, based on pre-Katrina data, had other significant data and comparisons:
As you can see, using a wider range of factors in considering “poverty” lends itself to considering a wider range of responses to seek the common good and the well-being of the “least among us.”
Child Poverty, Rural Poverty, and “Deep Poverty”
The figures released in September, 2010, by the U.S. Census Bureau from its 2009 American Community Survey give us multiple angles from which to view the poverty of the five states of the Gulf South. If we just look at the overall numbers of people living below “the poverty line”—a measure considered too low by many experts—we see figures  reflected in this table with the overall U.S. and regional numbers:
|Population||People in Poverty||Poverty Rate|
On this simple measure of the percentage of the population living in poverty, Mississippi has the highest percentage in the nation, as has been the case for a number of years. The national poverty rate, at 14.3 percent, is the highest it has been since 1994, reflecting the “great recession” of the past several years.
If we consider the future of the region, however, one of the most significant factors is the poverty of its children. Child poverty has an impact that usually carries throughout the life of the person who is poor as a child, manifesting itself in continuing health problems as an adult. In addition, early childhood poverty is “often correlated with fewer years of completed schooling.”  When looking at child poverty, several different views also are helpful. The first is the poverty of all children under 18; a second is the poverty of children under five, a group more deeply affected by their poverty; and a third, important in the South and elsewhere, is rural child poverty, which is more acute than in suburban or central city areas. The table  below reflects three sets of child poverty views:
|Number of poor children (under 18)||Poverty rate of children (under 18)||Poverty rate of children (under 5)||Rural Poverty Child Rate|
The reality of so much child poverty in the region, such poverty among very young children, and such intense rural child poverty will deeply affect the future of the region and the State of Louisiana. It also should ring multiple alarms among Gulf South policy-makers, educators, Church leaders, and voters.
One nationally recognized set of measures of the well-being of children is the Kidscount Key Indicators, a well-established set of indicators developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. On these key indicators, Louisiana ranks 49th of the 50 states, as it has done for at least the past five years. These measures include:
In many ways these indicators track the three main measures of the human development index discussed earlier: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living.
The last look at the new poverty figures is a significant distinction in calculating what is called “deep poverty.” Deep poverty describes those with incomes below half of the official poverty threshold. These would be individuals with incomes below $5,478 a year, two-person families with less than $6,996 a year, a three-person family with less income than $8,549 a year, and so forth. Perhaps it should be called “desperate poverty” or just “desperation.” Tragically, in the United States 18.8 million people live in deep poverty. This is 6.3% of the U.S. population. In Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf South, the numbers of persons in deep poverty is reflected in the following table:
|Persons living in Deep Poverty||Percent in 2009||Percent in 2000|
There are many facts and many facets of poverty and child poverty in Louisiana—most of which are terrible. They are a blot on our belief in the sacred nature of the human person and the privileged status that children should have in the hearts and consciences of any Christian. As I understand it, the question being raised in this Annual Assembly is whether the members of Louisiana Interchurch Conference will resolve together to change the painful and shameful status quo for this state’s children and their families.
Politicians have set goals for reducing child poverty in Louisiana in the past, but promises have not been delivered and, over and over again, our state ranks among the worst in the nation.
In the midst of what is being called the Great Recession and plans at the national and state levels to reduce assistance to our poorest families, we might be tempted to believe that any effort to change our poverty status quo is hopeless. In secular terms, it certainly seems to be the case. But we are women and men of the Gospel. We are women and men who believe in planting seeds from which great harvests are grown. We are women and men who follow a carpenter whose death brought life to the world.
When others talk about hopelessness, I like to refer to the wonderful 1986 statement of the Czech poet Vaclav Havel that reflects the true nature of Christian hope. Bear with me for a few final paragraphs as a closing reflection:
Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out … It is this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
- Vaclav Havel, 1986
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