The Catholic University of America
Catholic News Service covered an April 24 conference held at CUA titled "Poverty, Families and Policy in the U.S.: Where Do We Go From Here?" Sandra Hanson, professor of sociology, and Faith Mullen, clinical assistant professor of law, were quoted in the article. See their comments in the story below.


Poverty's intractability seen spreading to higher-income groups

From: Catholic News Service
Date: May 9, 2008
Author: Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Different societal ills command the national spotlight when they threaten to migrate from the underclass to the middle class. It was that way with illegal drugs like LSD and marijuana 40 years ago, and it is that way today with poverty.

With many symptoms of a poorer America having manifested themselves in recent months -- among them the housing foreclosure crisis, a weak U.S. dollar and escalating food and energy prices -- a typical American could very well think, "Ooh, maybe I can be poor," according to Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who is executive director of Network, the Catholic social justice lobby.

Sister Simone was one of the speakers at a recent conference, "Poverty, Families and Policy in the U.S.: Where Do We Go From Here?" held at The Catholic University of America in Washington, and sponsored by the university's Life Cycle Institute.

Four states and 29 cities have developed strategies to tackle poverty, in addition to Catholic Charities USA, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and a task force convened by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, said Mark Greenberg, director of the Center for American Progress' "Poverty and Prosperity" program. He suggested those entities have jumped into the fray on poverty because the federal government hasn't.

The poverty line -- $20,614 for a family of four -- is based on calculations that haven't changed since the mid-1960s, Greenberg said. "In other countries, poverty is measured quite differently. The only thing we've done since (the 1960s) is adjust it for inflation."

In 1959, nearly 40 years ago, the poverty rate was just under half of the median U.S. household income, Greenberg said. In 2005, it was 28 percent of the median income, which excludes more people from the federal definition of poverty.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, he added, was intended to play an offsetting role when it comes to low-income workers' payroll taxes, but to benefit a larger number of Americans, especially those unable to work or to find work, it should be "fully refundable," qualifying poor households for the money regardless of how much they work, or how much money they make when they work.

Faith Mullen, a professor at Catholic University's law school, illustrated just how hard it is for families to escape poverty.

When working for a legal aid clinic, she helped -- or tried to help -- a four-generation family. The great-grandmother who owned the house had died, and the grandmother -- who was raising her two grandchildren in the house -- was dependent on the family matriarch's income. Despite a low monthly mortgage payment, the grandmother couldn't afford to make the payments after the matriarch died, nor could she afford the payments on the used car she bought.

The car was repossessed, which resulted in longer rides using public transportation to the grandchildren's school and less time spent at a recreation center the kids had frequented after school. The bank was ready to foreclose on the house. "The woman was turning the house upside down" looking for insurance policies or evidence of other assets the great-grandmother had to stave off even further hardship, Mullen said.

The grandmother eventually cobbled together about $20,000 in insurance policies, although probate fees and bank charges threatened to eat up that money. The bank relented on foreclosing, but then the city condemned the house because its attached garage was falling down; the bank reneged on not foreclosing since it didn't want to deal with a condemned property.

Mullen said she found an unlicensed contractor who pulled down the garage -- damaging the house slightly and taking another bite from the insurance nest egg. But the bank held off from foreclosing. The grandmother found another car. All seemed well, or close to it, Mullen said.

Then the grandmother herself died. This time, the bank did foreclose on the house. The grandchildren moved in with their aunt and her three children in a two-bedroom apartment, Mullen said. The grandchildren's father is now out of prison but has few job prospects that would enable him to contribute to his kids' well-being.

Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities USA, cited the 37 million Americans now living in poverty. "Trust me," she said, "if there were 37 million who were a voting bloc, there would be a new discussion on poverty in our country."

One discussion began in Great Britain, when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his intent to eliminate child poverty by 2020. When he did that, said Catholic University sociology professor Sandra Hanson, "he didn't have any plan to offer," but England's best minds set to work on one. In the United States, Hanson said, "it's imperative to focus on all poverty, not just child poverty."

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2008 (c) Catholic News Service www.CatholicNews.com
Reprinted with permission of CNS