The Moral Facts
A community cannot claim moral justice if significant numbers of its citizens, and especially its children, live in poverty.
That's the message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops in their pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy," released in November, 1986. The accompanying excerpts from that letter offer a portrait of American poverty today.
The Test of Justice
From the Scriptures and church teaching we learn that the justice of a society is tested by the treatment of the poor, yet harsh poverty plagues our country despite its great wealth. More than 33 million Americans are poor; by any reasonable standard another 20 million to 30 million are needy. Poverty is increasing in the United States, not decreasing. For a people who believe in "progress," this should be cause for alarm. Of particular concern is the fact that poverty has increased dramatically during the last decade. Since 1973, the poverty rate has increased by nearly a third.
Poverty is not an isolated problem existing solely among a small number of anonymous people in our central cities. Nor is it limited to a dependent underclass or to specific groups in the United States. It is a condition experienced at some time by many people in different walks of life and in different circumstances. Many poor people are working, but at wages insufficient to lift them out of poverty. Others are unable to work and therefore dependent on outside sources of support. Still others are on the edges of poverty; although not officially defined as poor, they are economically insecure and at the risk of failing into poverty.
Important to our discussion of poverty in America is an understanding of the degree of economic inequality in our nation. For example, it is estimated that 28 percent of the total net wealth is held by the richest 2 percent of families in the United States. The top 10 percent holds 5 7 percent of the net wealth.
Although disparities in the distribution of income are less extreme, they are still striking. In 1984, the bottom 20 percent of American families received only 4.7 percent of the total income in the nation, and the bottom 40 percent received only 15.7 percent, the lowest share on record in U.S. history. In contrast, the top one-fifth received 42.9 percent of the total income, the highest share since 1948. Moreover, the gap between rich and poor in our nation has increased during the last decade.
Women and Children in Poverty
Very many poor families with children receive no government assistance, have no health insurance and cannot pay medical bills. Less than half are immunized against preventable diseases such as diphtheria and polio. Poor children are disadvantaged even before birth; their mothers' lack of access to high-quality prenatal care leaves them at much greater risk of premature birth, low birth weight, physical and mental impairment, and death before their first birthday.
The past 20 years have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of women in poverty. This includes women raising children alone as well as women with inadequate income following divorce, widowhood or retirement. More than one-third of all female-headed families are poor. Among minority families headed by women the poverty rate is over 50 percent.
Wage discrimination against women is a major factor behind these high rates of poverty. Women who work outside their homes full time and year round earn only 61 percent of what men earn.
Women's responsibilities for child rearing are another important factor to be considered. Despite the many changes in marriage and family life in recent decades, women continue to have primary responsibility in this area. When marriages break up, mothers typically take custody of the children and bear the major financial responsibility for supporting them. In 1983, less than half of women raising children alone had been awarded child support, and of those only half received the full amount to which they were entitled. Even fewer women (14 percent) are awarded alimony, and many older women are left in poverty after a lifetime of homemaking and child rearing.
We must also speak frankly about misunderstandings and stereotypes of the poor. It is frequently suggested that people stay on welfare for many years, do not work, could work if they want to and have children who will be on welfare.
In fact, people move on and off welfare, and fewer than 1 percent obtain benefits for an unbroken span of 10 years. It is also not true that the rolls of Aid to Families with Dependent Children arc filled with able-bodied adults who could but will not work. The majority of AFDC recipients are young children and their mothers who must remain at home.
These mothers are also accused of having more children so that they can raise their allowances. The truth is that 70 percent of AFDC families have only one or two children and that there is little financial advantage in having another. Research has consistently demonstrated that people who are poor have the same strong desire to work that characterizes the rest of the population.
The Poor Are Not Always With Us
During the last 25 years the Social Security program has dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly. In addition, in 1983, it lifted out of poverty almost 1.5 million children of retired, deceased and disabled workers. Medicare has enhanced the life expectancy and health status of elderly and disabled people, and Medicaid has reduced infant mortality and greatly improved access to health care for the poor.
These and other successful social welfare efforts indicate that we have the capacity to design programs that are effective and provide necessary assistance to the needy in a way that respects their dignity. We must summon a new creativity and commitment to eradicate poverty in our midst and to guarantee all Americans their right to share in the blessings of our land.