“Progress in the fight against poverty is grinding to a halt.” This April 4 StarTribune story headline warned that the steady decline in global poverty since 1981 may be ending. While China and India have seen much progress in the struggle against poverty, sub-Saharan Africa now drives the global poverty rates, and they are rising.
With this grim view of world poverty before us, we may be witnessing as well a decline in the will to fight poverty here in the United States.
President Trump’s proposed budget includes an 18 percent cut in funding for Health and Human Services. That is the federal agency that provides much of the funding for Meals on Wheels. More than 50,000 seniors and disabled adults in Minnesota benefit from Meals on Wheels. For many it is the program that allows them to remain in their homes and still get proper nutrition.
Minnesota state legislators show a similar lack of willingness to confront poverty. MFIP (Minnesota Family Investment Program) provides basic economic assistance for children and parents working toward full-time paid employment. Across the state, seven of 10 MFIP recipients are children.
In Todd County alone 54 families received MFIP assistance in 2016. It is a temporary economic lifeline for so many families, yet state legislators are considering a monthly payment increase of only $13, and that is the first increase in 31 years.
Catholic social teachings are clear that responding to the needs of people living in poverty is a necessary part of living the Christian life.
Followers of Jesus Christ practice the preferential option for the poor. Pope Paul VI first gave us this language in his 1971 apostolic letter, “A Call to Action.” “The Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others,” it says (23).
This teaching presents a difficult challenge to Catholics, especially regarding how we should respond to the needs of people whom we call “economically poor.” Helping the poor must go beyond mere feelings of sympathy and well wishing. It must go beyond contributing money. In Catholic social teaching responding to the poor goes together with actions for social justice, that is, actions to bring about needed changes in society.
The preferential option for the poor recognizes that citizens often are faced with two or more choices — options — when making changes in public programs, laws or policies. When that is the case, according to this teaching, we are to support the option or change that we believe will offer the greatest benefits to persons with the greatest needs — even when these changes may not benefit us directly.
Pope Francis reminded us of the importance of this willingness to sacrifice for the sake of helping others when he quoted from an early Christian theologian, St. John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” 57).
It may be difficult for most of us to do anything about the severe poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, but there is much we can do about our federal and state funding resources for persons who are hurting here in Minnesota and throughout the United States.
At the very least we can urge our legislators in St. Paul and Washington to provide adequate funding for those programs that bring assistance to persons who are less well off than ourselves. That should be the priority rather than politically motivated tax cuts, increased military spending or building walls. Progress in the fight against global poverty may be grinding to a halt, but the will to fight poverty in the United States should never grow dim.
Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.