To grow up poor in the United States does not just mean going without material things, although poor children certainly do that. It also means going without things most families take for granted for their children: a safe way to get to and from schools, parents who are available and able to advocate for their children with school officials and to help them stay engaged in their studies, access to healthy food and the knowledge to choose a healthy diet. 

A study released in early June by the Child and Youth Well-Being Index Project at Duke University showed that about 21 percent of children in the United States will live below the poverty line this year, as the recession and its attendant job losses and decline in family income have pushed the proportion of children in poverty near 1975 levels. 

The index looks at 28 indicators that go beyond economics to look at risky behavior, emotional and spiritual well-being and community engagement. 

Lack of awareness 

Child poverty tends to rise and fall in tandem with general poverty, said Ralph McCloud, executive director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic anti-poverty effort. 

“My sense is that poverty as a whole is going up,” said McCloud. “The recession, high rates of unemployment, polarization in large metropolitan areas, the decline in family farms in rural areas … there are a lot of factors. We just try to have programs that deal with poverty as a whole, and that has the residual effect of helping with child poverty.” 

Part of the difficulty is that, to many people, poverty is nearly invisible. “It’s possible to live your whole life and never see the poverty in your own community, or very close to it,” McCloud said. “There are people who live in affluent, gated, oftentimes suburban communities who are not confronted with poverty.” 

That’s why education must figure in any effort to reduce poverty. 

“Most people, no matter what side of the ideological spectrum they are on, don’t want to see a child in want and need,” he said. 

Helping those children can have a great effect, he said, because people who grow up in poverty are likely to remain poor as they raise their own children.

Involving parents 

Liz Buckley, executive director of Federation of Congregations United to Serve (FOCUS), in Orlando, Fla., said her group obtained a $30,000 grant from CCHD to help parents use the resources they have by training them to be leaders. 

The Parent Leadership Project helps parents of students in low-income schools to build relationships with one another and with school leaders. The parents come from the Oak Ridge community, a predominantly Latino area with large numbers of immigrants and a high crime rate. They meet at St. John Vianney Catholic Church to learn how to get involved in schools. 

One thing the parents wanted was a safe way for children to get to school, especially after reports of a man trying to abduct children on their way to school. So they worked to set up a program in which parents are trained by sheriff’s deputies to monitor key points before and after school and are equipped with radios or cell phones to call police. They have also had crosswalks and stoplights installed to reduce danger from traffic. 

Training parent volunteers is important, because many immigrant families are afraid to call police, Buckley said. 

“We’re doing a lot of work with community policing,” she said. 

While the project does not directly affect economic poverty — it doesn’t put money directly into the pockets of the families it serves — it does address relational poverty, Buckley told OSV. 

“Where a lot of these families come from, there’s more of a societal fabric,” she said. “Here, it’s a huge void. With this project, it’s not just the quality of the schools. It’s coming together as a community.” 

Care for most vulnerable 

Many of the ideas that have surfaced during a series of Centennial Leadership Summits hosted by Catholic Charities USA have focused on building communities as well. 

Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said the goal is to reduce poverty in the United States by 50 percent in the next 10 years. 

Accomplishing that will take more than community action, he said. Catholic Charities anticipates working for anti-poverty legislation in Congress after finishing its 10 regional summits and holding its centennial gathering in Washington, D.C., in September. 

“The work of Catholic Charities has been the work of standing with the poor and marginalized and the disenfranchised,” he said, “to act as the attorney for the poor in the forum of policy-setting.” 

“If we have the political will, we will be able to reduce poverty in this challenging time,” Father Snyder said at the regional summit in Chicago. “We have the creativity and the resources to overcome any obstacle.” 

Local Catholic Charities agencies already are working with government programs to deliver help to poor children. For example, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago this year is providing 4,000 breakfasts and 6,000 lunches Monday through Friday as part of its summer nutrition program — about double the number of meals served last year. The meals go to children ages 5-18 who receive free and reduced-price meals during the academic year. 

This year, teens who are part of Catholic Charities summer employment program have been trained to teach about nutrition and food safety, providing economic help for them as well. 

In Omaha, Neb., Holy Name Parish also works with the federal government to provide summer meals. Father Frank Baumert, the pastor, said the parish also serves as a site for a city-run summer program for kids. 

“It goes back to what we are told to do,” he said. “In the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, it was always ‘take care of the widows and the orphans.’ They were the most vulnerable. It’s our job to take care of the vulnerable.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Catholic Social Teaching (Sidebar)

A key theme of Catholic social teaching is an option for the poor and vulnerable, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first,” the bishops said in a 2005 document about seven key themes of Catholic social teaching.

Below The Line (Sidebar)

People who are below the poverty line in the United States had a total household income of less than $18,310 for a family of three or $22,050 for a family of four, according to federal guidelines. 

While the Child and Youth Well-Being Index Project found that about one in five U.S. children are living in poverty this year, in four states, that number approaches one in four. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, released last August, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico had more than 25 percent of their children living in poverty.