An Uphill Battle: Catholic Charities Leaders Meet amid Biggest Poverty Crisis since Great Depression

Article excerpt


PORTLAND, ORE -- Facing a poverty crisis "at levels we haven't seen since the 1930s," Catholic Charities USA president Fr. Larry Snyder welcomed 450 Catholic Charities leaders to their annual national meeting Sept. 24-26 in Portland.

"Last September, when Wall Street collapsed, we could not have known what we were about to face: the jobs lost, the growing number of unemployed," he said. "Within weeks the faces of the people you have worked with for years changed dramatically. ... Their numbers continue to grow."

"Last year the number of people Catholic Charities agencies across the country served grew by 10.2 per cent," he said. "That doesn't include the first nine months of 2009," when the numbers of unemployed, poor and hungry continued to grow dramatically.

"By any measure, this has beeri a difficult year,"-he said. "Our agencies are serving and turning people away in record numbers, even as they themselves have to make difficult decisions about reducing overhead and infrastructure and trying to serve more with less."

Attendance figures at the Portland gathering indicated the severe financial pinch diocesan Catholic Charities agencies are facing. The 450 at this year's meeting was down considerably from the plus-500, sometimes up to 600, who have attended other recent national conventions, said Patricia A. Hvidston, senior vice president for development and communication at Catholic Charities USA.

Catholic Charities of the Chicago archdiocese, which usually sends about 20 people to the annual gathering, sent only three this year.

Traveling farthest to the Portland gathering were three Catholic Charities officials from the diocese of Pago Pago, American Samoa: lay leader Cecilia Solofa and Dominican Srs. Elsa Sintilias and Evangeline Castillo. Castillo told NCR the trio traveled 35 hours to reach Portland for the three-day gathering.

In his keynote address Sept. 24 Snyder alluded several times to the recently released results of an annual survey on Catholic Charities activities in 2008 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington.


The nation's diocesan Catholic Charities offices and their more than 1,700 agencies or affiliates spent more than $3.9 billion serving more than 10 million poor people, many of them in multiple capacities. With about 18,500 parishes currently in the United States, according to CARA researcher Mary Gautier, that works out to roughly $210,000 per parish in services to the poor provided by the country's Catholic Charities agencies.

Snyder said the 2008 and 2009 increases in services are "not a cause for celebration. Unlike McDonald's our goal is not to increase the number of people we serve. We want to serve fewer people--for the reason that they would no longer need our services."

President Obama's health care reform campaign and the Catholic Charities project to cut poverty in America in half by 2020, launched in January 2007, formed major thematic frameworks for the Portland meeting.

David Gergen, a CNN political commentator and former advisor to four presidents, encouraged Catholic Charities leaders to continue their fight for a major reduction in poverty--which he called a "moral imperative"--but warned that it will probably be a difficult uphill battle that could take not just years but decades.

"The poverty rate is scandalously high," Gergen said, and he described Catholic Charities' goal of cutting it in half by 2020 as "a wonderful thing if that could occur."

He said those seeking major reductions in U.S. poverty currently have a federal administration and a Congress more favorable to their goal than they have had for many years, but the nation's financial crisis inherited from the Bush administration and Obama's efforts to implement major reforms in health care have effectively sidetracked any new war on poverty. …