How You Can Address Income Inequality and Poverty

Recently the USCCB posted this presentation on income inequality. I thought it was a great place to start on raising awareness about how wage inequality impacts people who are living in poverty in this country. It’s a major problem but it doesn’t have any simple solutions, and the presentation doesn’t really offer any. The complexity of the situation has been weighing heavily on my heart because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that came out recently indicated that:

● The higher minimum wage would reduce jobs by about 500,000, or 0.3 percent of projected 2016 employment. The CBO admits that its estimates involve much uncertainty. Job loss, it says, might be as high as 1 million or as low as almost nothing. The half-million figure is its best judgment.

● Up to 25 million workers would receive wage increases, about 16.5 million below the proposed minimum and possibly 8 million more just above it. Wage increases would raise the incomes of families in poverty by about 3 percent, or $300 annually. The effect is muted because most people in poverty don’t have jobs and many low-income workers are part-time (47 percent).

●Higher incomes would lift about 900,000 people above the government’s poverty line in 2016 ($24,100 for a family of four). That’s about 2 percent of the projected 45 million poor.

A higher minimum wage would help a lot of people, but it could also hurt a number of people too, and it certainly isn’t a final solution to the problem of poverty in the USA. The situation can’t be reduced to one simple step. Hunger and poverty are complex issues, and if we are going to end them (which I hope we all would love to see) it’s going to take a lot of work on a lot of different fronts. What the USCCB presentation does is highlight the historical, theological, and statistical reasons why we should CARE about income inequality. Great job! I care about it, but now what should I do?

How can income inequality best be addressed and what changes might be put into place within a wider series of reforms?

I have recently been reading the new “Hunger Report” on “Ending Hunger in America.” It’s 250 pages long, but a faithful and fruitful discussion on the issues of hunger in America is presented in it. It addresses income inequality, jobs, local leadership, and national policy. It also takes the time to look at those on the margins who are often left out, excluded, and denied access to the programs, jobs, and services that can keep them secure. I highly recommend taking a look at it.  Each component in addressing poverty is complex and essential, and requires people who are willing to address the issues in their complexity.

As Catholics I believe we are all called to take action with our time, voice, and resources to make an impact in our communities. We should take time to talk and learn about poverty. We should take time to speak up about poverty to our friends and, more importantly, to our policy makers. We should take time to pray about poverty. We should take time to serve those in poverty. We should use our resources to support those in poverty.

I believe that income inequality is a crisis that will only grow if we don’t address it. It’s part of a larger problem of poverty in our nation. To fix it will take some difficult decisions, and actions like raising the minimum wage are certainly an essential part of it. More importantly, though, it also requires people who are willing to make difficult decision in their own lives to address it. As we approach Lent I encourage you to think about some ways that you can impact poverty as part of your spiritual practice this season.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Connect your fast to Justice! I recently posted 5 creative fasting ideas that can help connect what you give up for Lent to the trials of those in poverty.
  2. Make letter-writing a spiritual practice. This is something I recently encouraged over at Bread for the World. Letters can comfort the grieving, embrace the lonely, uplift the discouraged, and carry love across the globe. A letter can also affect the lives of people you may not even know. Writing to your policy makers in Washington, D.C., can influence the decisions they make—decisions that affect millions of people both here at home and around the world.
  3. Give a little extra. Budgets are moral documents. They indicate what we value. Take a look at yours and evaluate if you can make a sacrifice anywhere so that you can help others who are struggling.
  4. Take time to pray about these issues. As we connect with God’s heart for justice, our own lives find strength and inspiration. Consider making issues of poverty a topic for prayer and contemplation. You might also consider taking a group though a time of prayer and study together. I am hoping to use this guide with my family this year. 

I pray God will bless you this Lent, and that you will be led into the heart of our just God and his love for all people.

Finding Inspiration with the Ignatian Family

After spending a weekend at #IFTJ13 all I can say is “wow!” The Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice 2013 was an inspiring event. I hadn’t heard of it until recently, so I’ll assume many of you don’t know about it either. It’s a gathering of mostly young college and high school students from Jesuit institutions that happens every year. During the Teach-in, these young people pray together and learn together about how to work for justice in the world. The speakers were inspiring, but the students were even more so!

These students were amazing! They were bright, passionate, engaged, informed, energetic and deeply committed to letting the love of Jesus spill out of them in both their personal lives and in our public policy. This weekend they inspired me, rejuvenated me, and showed me the face of Jesus over and over and over.

As Bread for the World’s resident Catholic conspirator, I was given the opportunity to put a team together to hang out with hundreds of these amazing young people who are looking to explore what it means to be an active Catholic with a public voice. We were able to do a number of sessions, covering how to create a “Circle of Protection” around essential safety net programs here in the United States, and on how providing proper nutrition for children and mothers from the beginning of pregnancy until a child’s second birthday is essential for preventing disease, improving education and overall health, and ultimately saving lives. These 1000 days are key! On Monday, we gathered at the Capitol building for prayer, praise, and advocacy meetings with our congressional representatives, where students went out and challenged policy makers to pass comprehensive immigration reform, protect food security programs, and establish a living wage.

Here are the five takeaways I received from the conference:

  1. They gave me three great questions to ask myself every day: 1) With whom do you cast your lot? 2) From whom do you draw your strength? 3) Whose are you? If I could ask myself those questions FIRST before I face any challenge I think I would be a much stronger person.
  2. They helped me understand justice better. One thing that really stuck out to me was the idea that justice is God’s public love. As a person whose faith is the foundation of my work for justice, I found that this definition resonated strongly with my own experience of working for justice as a person of faith.
  3. They taught me that some Catholics actually CAN sing. Let me be honest for a second. I love being a Catholic, I really do… but I miss the singing of my Protestant background. I can’t tell you how sad it is to go to mass and see some of the greatest examples of the Church’s hymnody butchered by the typical throng of Catholics that seems to feels put upon to mumble or hum through songs that demonstrate the great work of redemption we now participate in Christ. This group was different. They sang, they clapped, they cheered– it was wonderful!
  4. They made me wish there was a third order for Jesuits. This group was awesome… and I felt SO at home with them. Conference speaker Fr. Jim Martin articulated what it meant to be a Jesuit powerfully as someone who knows deeply how loved they are by God, and wants to share that love with others. That is who I want to be.
  5. The most important thing I walked away with was hope. The media is filled with stories that condemn this young generation as lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to speak up to change the systems that keep people hungry and poor. This group, and those like it, are proof that their generation is not only engaged but immensely creative with their activism. Take a look at some of the messages these students posted on their representative’s twitter pages as part of our social media campaign!

It was great to be there.

Seeing the Divine in the Sky and the Poor

One of my spiritual practices is to look at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day each morning. I am humbled by the greatness and beauty of the universe. There is a certain holy fear that staring up at the stars inspires in me. The universe is filled with amazing, beautiful things that have been present for as long as humans have walked this world, but we are only now able to see many of them. Take for example how  we have been able to slow down the noise of crickets and reveal how amazingly beautiful their chirping is–or how microscopes have helped us to see the magic of butterfly scales and unveiled incredible creatures we never knew existed 

The universe is amazing! And it’s far beyond anything we can even imagine.

Scientists estimate that in the observable universe alone there are 170 billion galaxies. That means that if each person in all of human existence (about 100 billion) was given a galaxy, that would still leave about half of the galaxies we can observe unclaimed. Each of these galaxies contains an estimated 400 billion stars, and the closest of these stars (other than our sun) would take 19,361 years to reach using the fastest vessels we have today (which go 150,000 miles per hour).

What’s more amazing to me is that the One who upholds and sustains this extraordinarily vast and complex universe would reveal himself through the humble frame of a man, Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God comes to us as a child at his mother’s breast, as a day laborer in a backwater district of an occupied nation, as a man stripped, beaten and killed, as one like us.

The glass contains the ocean. A breath contains the sky. The womb contains majesty without end. The unmoved mover was moved to meet us where we move.

In Jesus, God reveals himself in the universal human language of humanity itself. God adopted human flesh, and so human flesh has become the greatest icon (image) we have of God.

How are we to venerate this great image? Jesus tells us we do it when we love, when we feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, and take our coat and give it to the one who is cold and naked (Matthew 25:31-46). Yes, one of my spiritual practices is to admire God’s handiwork in pictures of the universe, but perhaps I would be better served in seeing God by making an extra lunch in the morning and keeping my eyes open for icons of God in need of a sandwich.

Perhaps this is what Dorothy Day realized when she stated, “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Billy Kangas is the Catholic Relations fellow at Bread for the World, a PhD student in theology at Catholic University, and the editor of The Orant.