In his January 16, 2020 letter to members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, CEO David Barringer does a fine job of listing issues we must grapple with in our efforts toward systemic change.

I particularly like his reminder… Vincentians can be the storytellers to policy makers and others who may never “see” poverty in all of its forms

At least four separate, but related, forces are about to emerge to give Vincentians and all Americans a picture of poverty today. I do not forecast that this picture will be very clear.

In January, we (SVDP) prepare for the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering of around 400 Catholic social service leaders and advocates for visits to Capitol Hill and discussion of causes related to Catholic Social Teaching. This includes Life, Climate, Reformative Justice, the federal budget’s social entitlements and other subjects that all have some bearing on people in poverty if we simply choose to see it through this lens. Participants will hear the messages and priorities of our bishops.

We will also hear the president’s State of the Union annual address, which we can predict will tout economic prosperity in terms of jobs created, a record stock market, higher wages, a high employment participation rate and historically low unemployment rates. We will learn about the next federal budget cycle’s projected priorities expressed in dollars and deficits. Across the month of January and it seems endlessly beyond, we will all hear versions of the future of America through national elections communications throughout the media.

To be sure, there will not be a uniform set of opinions. There may not even be a uniform set of facts! What’s a Vincentian to take away from all this?

Let’s start in our own neighborhood. National economic and demographic figures are nice, but what does life look and feel like where we live? Home Visits not only help the friends in need; they help us get a snapshot of what forms of poverty exist in our neighborhood.

  • Are jobs available but a lack of skills or opportunity?
  • Are substance abuse, incarceration, or insecure family structures more of the problem than a lack of available jobs?
  • Are entitlement programs being used, or abused?
  • Is generational poverty and its traditions keeping people from rejecting handouts and making their own way?
  • Do childcare, parental care, transportation, disability or other needs keep people out of the workforce because they can’t be reliable employees?

He continues with even more questions.

  • Does having a job actually have little or nothing to do with the poverty we see?
  • How many of those we visit are elderly living alone?
  • How many are in rural areas where resources are scarce or simply do not exist?
  • How many live in a family home or farm where they can no longer pay the property taxes?
  • How many have health concerns that keep them from working and keep the healthcare bills piling up?

We can’t put poverty into a neat box for public policy solutions. Poverty isn’t a single story; it is a myriad of individual stories, each one unique, compelling, and worthy of a listen.

Vincentians can be the storytellers to policy makers and others who may never “see” poverty in all of its forms. Among the many social service agencies, even Catholic ones, we have the unique perspective of being with people in their homes, seeing and hearing the real state of poverty in America.

No doubt, we will hear a lot about America’s prosperity this month. How do we as Vincentians use this information, and help our neighbors participate in it, one family at a time?

I believe all followers of Vincent and Louise need to reflect on the context of our many and varied ministries. Thank you, Dave, for setting the table!


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