Catholic Charities Pushes New Antipoverty Legislation

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WASHINGTON * Catholic Charities leaders from across the nation flooded the offices of U.S. senators and representatives Sept. 28 to push for a major new U.S. approach to drawing Americans out of poverty.

"It is time to think and act anew" said Fr. Larry Snyder, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA.

More than 700 Catholic Charities delegates from nearly all U.S. states stormed congressional offices asking members of Congress to become cosponsors the National Opportunity and Community Renewal Act, a bill drafted by Catholic Charities that could transform the way federal, state and local antipoverty programs operate.

The Capitol Hill visits marked the final day of Catholic Charities' centenary convention in Washington. It also marked the first time in its 100-year history that Catholic Charities has proposed its own legislation to Congress.

Although it has been deeply involved in the past century in working for effective federal antipoverty legislation--including laws against child labor, minimum wage and affordable housing laws and the Social Security Act--those laws were drafted by others.

The initiative was unveiled to 1,000 Catholic Charities delegates Sept. 26, the second day of their Sept. 25-28 national meeting.

Introduced as a modest national pilot program, it proposes to establish new model experiments in 10 communities around the country in which traditional government antipoverty programs are replaced by a more flexible and comprehensive approach. At least three of the communities would be rural--where poverty is even more endemic than in major metropolitan areas--and at least one would be in an area with a military base, another area of high poverty levels.

If the pilot programs succeed as expected, they could form a model to realign all U.S. antipoverty programs so that they focus more on holistic poverty-exit plans than on program-specific relief of current conditions without a clear overall plan for people to free themselves from the downward spiral of poverty.

In the proposed approach, the goal is to get the individual or family back on its own two feet, rather than simply filling the gaps of needs--food, shelter, etc.--that drew the individual or family into current welfare or other dependency programs in the first place.

The legislation is a new step in Catholic Charities' goal of cutting U.S. poverty in half within the next decade.

Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., introduced the bill in the Senate Sept. 28 and Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., introduced it in the House.

In his keynote speech Sept. 26, Snyder described the current economic crisis and the rich-poor inequities that helped create it as a new "opportunity to establish priority on the well-being of the poor."

Catholic Charities has always had an important role in providing a safety net for those in need "and the sad reality is that there will always be people who need a safety net," he said.

But for those who, with appropriate assistance, have the tools to break out of the cycle of poverty "our efforts must be transformational," he said.

"With this legislation, today we tell the tens of millions of Americans living in poverty that there is a new hope, that they are not destined to live in poverty for their entire lives," he said.

Candy Hill, Catholic Charities senior vice president for social policy and government affairs, highlighted the significance of the possible new moment in welfare reform by noting that "it has been more than 40 years since this country has experienced a truly transformative moment for social change."

"Now is the time for a new conversation on what it means to live in poverty in the United States in the 21st century," she said. "We need to use this economic crisis to create a new economy that does not leave out millions of people."

The key to transformation would be flexible combining of existing programs, tailored to the specific needs and capacities of clients, to enable them not only to survive in poverty but to lift themselves out of it. …