Caring for ‘the least of these’

Midway between the Census Bureau’s Sept. 16 release of poverty data and the Nov. 2 midterm elections, the Catholic Diocese of Peoria on Saturday, Oct. 9 is sponsoring a day-long institute on social justice open to all.

One wonders whether there will be criticisms from the Right on such “liberal foolishness” as helping the needy. Let’s hope not.

“Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land,” says Amos, Ch. 8. “The Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: ‘I will never forget anything they have done’.”

Indeed, the need is real.

The Great Recession hit home and hit hard last year, the Census Bureau reported, with the poverty rate jumping 1.1%, to 14.3%, the highest in decades: 43.6 million Americans. One of every seven people is poor now, and one in every six of us lacks health insurance until recently enacted reforms kick in. In the last year, those without health insurance increased 4.4 million souls to almost 51 million.

In Peoria, the poverty rate is higher. In Peoria County in 2008, 15% of residents were below the poverty line (set at $21,954 in annual income for a family of four); in the city of Peoria it was 18.8% in 1999, the last year for which the census lists figures.

Both certainly got worse by now.

The experience of local social service agencies bears that out.

“We’ve seen a 35% to 50% increase in our food pantries from a year ago,” said Barb Shreves, director of the Peoria Area Food Bank, which serves 110 pantries in 8 counties, including 70 pantries in Peoria alone.

“It’s unbelievable; it really is,” she continued. “It’s mostly new families, people just laid off, or folks who’ve depleted their savings. We used to give out 1 million pounds of food a year; now we’re up to 3.2 million pounds.”

Oddly, while the numbers and percentage of the poor went up, median yearly income of people who are still working didn’t fall, according to David Johnson, the census’ chief of household economic data. The median – the point where half of the country is above and half is below – was flat compared to 2008: $49,800. But that’s because the median covers fewer workers, said Johnson, who noted that from 2007, when the recession began, through 2009, median income fell by 4.2%, a decline tied to job losses.

Illinois reported a 10.1% unemployment rate in August.

“Without unemployment benefits, the number of poor adults would have risen by another 2.3 million,” Johnson said. “And take away Social Security and more than 14 million more elderly would be in poverty.”

The roles of government and of those who can help were addressed by President Obama Sept. 22 at the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the United Nations in New York.

“A decade ago, at the dawn of a new millennium, we set concrete goals to free our fellow men, women and children from the injustice of extreme poverty,” Obama said. “These are the standards that we set. Today, we must ask: Are we living up to our mutual responsibilities?

“Let’s put to rest the old myth that development is mere charity that does not serve our interests,” he continued. “And let’s reject the cynicism that says certain countries are condemned to perpetual poverty.  Instead of just managing poverty, we have to offer nations and people a path out of poverty.”

Conservative extremists might scoff at just measures, but some of them no doubt see themselves as religious, which can be a conflict.

“Rich nations have a grave moral responsibility toward those which are unable to ensure the means of their development by themselves,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “It is a duty in solidarity and charity. It is also an obligation in justice.”

The Catholic Church itself in Peoria is dealing with a dramatic increase in poverty, from food pantries such as the one Catholic Charities runs at St. Bernard’s school to a new referral program for people with other needs.

“It’s significant,” said Celeste Matheson of Catholic Charities communications office. “The number of emergency-related calls we’ve received has really been extraordinary, from parishioners and priests alike, trying to get people help in paying power bills or counseling or housing or children’s needs.”

As the Psalm says, “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”

The community continues to help, too, said Shreves, with the food bank.

“We’ve been very blessed,” she said. “Our donations haven’t gone down, although our food donations have. People are wonderful; they’ve been so kind.”

The catechism continues, “God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them.

“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them,” it continues.

The world tries to shape us to selfishness, fear and anger, but resistance to reactionary greed and power lust will be rewarded, as it says in Matthew, Ch. 25:

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

People interested in the Catholic Church’s Oct. 9 Social Ministry Institute, which costs $15, can get more information or register by emailing Father Dick Bresnahan, event coordinator, at

Contact Bill Knight at

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