Stepping up for families: Taking care of society’s poorest makes the world a richer place

During an early evening visit to a parish to speak about the CRS Rice Bowl with parents of children in religious education, I did some people watching.

The auditorium started filling around 7 p.m., and I noticed how tired everyone was. Instead of looking over my notes for the talk, I took a few minutes to enter into these parents’ day: how they got the children up and off to school in the morning, got dressed for work, made sure that evening’s supper was largely prepared, moaned at the low tank of gas, endured traffic, forgot lunch, hustled out of the workplace to put dinner on the table and got everybody out for CCD. I was moved with gratitude for how these parents, though exhausted, commit to the religious formation of their children.

A few weeks later in another city, I met a mother with her teenage daughter who rallied her younger siblings to sell the video games they had received for Christmas and donate the proceeds as their Lenten offerings. I am reminded of how faith is passed on within the family through the daily routines, messages spoken or not, the priorities they signal, and how the love for God and neighbor becomes real and internalized. 

 As Pope Francis stated in Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), “The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family.”

Yet many challenges work against the family. In the experiences of CRS, we see the brutal effect of violence on families. Since World War II, this is the first time when we have more than 50 million refugees and internally displaced people who live without homes, security and stability. Most of the women, children and elderly are separated from their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. Diseases like Ebola and AIDS result in hundreds of thousands of orphans and vulnerable children who sometimes become heads of households when they are barely teens.  

Millions of foreign workers, both legal and undocumented, leave their spouses and children to seek a living in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. These are not just manual laborers. I met a Chinese young woman who reluctantly left her newborn baby boy to the care of her mother-in-law to take advantage of a graduate scholarship in the U.S. at the urging of her husband, who was pursuing his studies at a different university. Her sadness could not be assuaged; she could not will herself into a study machine, and her heart showed her that no opportunity was worth this sacrifice.

Most prevalent is the corrosive effect of poverty on families. Around the world, one-third or 2.5 billion people live on $2 or less per day. Poverty is not just overseas in developing countries. In the United States, around 15 percent or 50 million Americans live below the poverty threshold. Poverty attacks families on so many dimensions. According to the Brookings Institute analysis of Gallup Poll data, low-income families report much higher levels of chronic pain, worry, sadness and anger. A 30-year study by Doris Entwisle, Linda Olson and Karl Alexander of children from different social-economic strata in Baltimore finds that college graduation rates of higher income and poor children are 45 percent and 4 percent, respectively. A large body of research concludes that low-income families are associated with lower birth weight babies whose exposure to stress will compromise their cognitive and emotional development. The effects manifest themselves in language acquisition, problem solving, emotional regulation, lower school attendance and completion, use of drugs and inability to acquire and hold a job.

Research findings at the Brookings Institute point to the trifecta of education, work and marriage as the pathway out of poverty. On each of these three dimensions, Catholics can play a role in terms of advocacy for national policies and programs that enhance progress and personally creating or assisting in parish ministries that address these factors within their neighborhoods. Advocacy efforts can explore and support national policies for living wage, job training, flexible work arrangements, in-home family training of new parents, provision of quality and affordable early childhood care, access to healthcare, effective vocational training and career academies, and incentives for work with appropriate income supplements for disadvantaged families.

Parish programs are limited only by imagination, energy and will. Depending on individual parish interests, demographics, facilities and talents, these could include safe and stimulating play space, family nights, parenting training, marriage enrichment programs, food pantries, etc.

In his speech on families, Pope Francis directs this statement to Christian couples: “With trust in God’s faithfulness, everything can be faced responsibly and without fear. Christian spouses are not naive; they know life’s problems and temptations. But they are not afraid to be responsible before God and before society.”

Can these Christian couples count on us as an expression of God’s faithfulness?

Carolyn Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.

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