Poverty is getting personal for many Americans these days. Despite the fact that experts say the Great Recession ended last summer, Main Street is still feeling a lot of pain. 

A Census report last month presented some sobering figures. Some 44 million Americans are living below the poverty line, defined for a family of four as pretax cash income of $22,050 annually. That’s one in seven people, and the highest level in more than a decade.

Our country’s poorest poor — those at below half the poverty line — increased to 6.3 percent, or the highest level since the government began tracking the group in 1975.

The income gap between the wealthiest Americans and the poor has also spiked to record levels. The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received nearly half of all income generated in the United States, compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line.

It’s reported that only twice before in American history has the gap between the rich and the poor been so great — the late 1920s, and the era of the robber barons in the 1880s. Forbes magazine’s annual survey says the combined net worth of the 400 richest Americans climbed 8 percent this year, to $1.37 trillion — more than the gross domestic product of most countries in the world.

But while the wealthy get wealthier, Catholic Charities USA, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year, reports that its services are in ever greater demand. According to its annual report, in 2009 Catholic Charities served 9,164,981 people, an increase of 7.5 percent from 2008, and a nearly 19 percent increase from 2007.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by all of these statistics. The need is so great, yet we are often struggling simply to deal with unemployment or underemployment in our own families and parish communities.

Catholic Charities is sponsoring new legislation — The National Opportunity and Community Renewal Act — in Congress to update government metrics for determining poverty and more effectively targeting resources to help those most in need. While details of the proposal will need debate, this appears to be a start that deserves bipartisan support.

At the same time, each of us is called by our faith and Our Lord to personally commit ourselves to helping the least powerful among us. Government programs have their place, but treating the poor with dignity and helping others to flourish is ultimately done person by person, family by family, and we are all called to help.

In every parish and every community, Catholics continue to reach out to those most in need. But as Pope Benedict XVI made clear in his recent encyclical on social justice, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), we are also responsible on a global scale.

African Cardinal Peter Turkson, who grew up in abject poverty in Ghana, told a summit of world leaders recently that the key to authentic development is “to expand our vision from the donor-recipient paradigm to see each other for who we are: brothers and sisters with equal dignity and opportunity to access the same markets and networks.” (In an apparent slap at Western nations’ funding of population control in poor countries, he also said anti-poverty goals “should be used to fight poverty and not to eliminate the poor.”)

“The poor you will always have with you,” Christ tells us. But he also makes clear that our very salvation depends on how we take care of those in need.Treating the poor with dignity and helping others to flourish is ultimately done person by person, family by family.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.