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Bringing our attention to the realities faced by the poor

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.”
Luke 4:18

January is Poverty Awareness Month, an annual initiative of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). During the entire month, we are invited to learn more about the realities of poverty in our nation (and here in Alaska) and to join the efforts of CCHD and others who work with poor individuals, families and communities to change unjust systems and policies in our society that keep them in poverty.

For example, according to the US Census Bureau, in 2017, an estimated 39.7 million Americans were living in poverty, that is, at or below the Federal poverty level (an income at or below $25,100 for a family of four.) The good news is that the poverty rate has declined since 2012, the peak of the “Great Recession” that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) reports that 15 million children nationwide, as of 2017, are living in families at or below the Federal poverty level. NCCP notes that an income that is twice the Federal poverty threshold is necessary to cover basic expenses for individuals and families. Using this standard, they estimate that 43% of American children are living in low-income families. In Alaska, NCCP reports that there are a total number of 90,198 families and 182,952 children. 15% of Alaskan children (26,542) live in poor families. A disproportionate number of Alaska Native children [30%/9,410] live at or below the poverty line.

A majority of children in poor families in our state have at least one parent who has full-time employment (16%) or seasonal or part-time employment (56%). However, even though most Alaskans living at or below the poverty-line are employed, the work they do does not provide them with a living wage. Instead, they are either employed or under-employed in low-wage jobs that do not provide enough to support their families.

Even if most jobs pay more than the $9.84 per hour minimum wage in our state they do not offset the high cost of living in Alaska, especially in rural areas. For families living on the poverty line in our state and around the country, finding and staying in housing that is affordable is a particular challenge. And because low-wage jobs and/or underemployment make it difficult if not impossible to save, families living in poverty struggle to cover all of their monthly expenses, much less accumulate savings. Which means that they are one lost paycheck or medical emergency away from losing their housing or being able to feed themselves and their children.

For so many poor families struggling to get by each month, just one problem can cascade into a catastrophe. A vehicle breaks down and there is no money to repair it, making it difficult or impossible to get to work. Or a family member without health insurance or without good insurance is diagnosed with a serious illness that racks up thousands of dollars in medical bills. Or a parent’s hours are cut back at work or is laid off.

Any of which might be manageable by themselves, but for a family struggling to make ends meet, on a poverty level income without savings might mean the difference between living in an apartment or trailer and trying to survive living in their truck or car. Or between children being fed or having to go without.

These are acute crises, but poverty has chronic, long term effects as well, especially on children. Poor children often end up in poverty as adults. One of the main causes is education. Whether because of substandard schools, unstable home life or because their parents don’t have the time or the resources to help them to achieve in school. The Urban Institute reported in 2017 that only 62 percent of children who lived in poverty for at least half of their lives graduated from high school (in contrast to the 90% graduation rate of children who never experienced poverty.

The same report found that nationally only 3% of young people from the minority of those from “persistently poor backgrounds” who attend college ever graduate.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Growing up poor makes everything harder. For many children, being raised poor limits their ability to reach their greatest potential.” Some of the physical and mental health effects of poverty for children can include:

Low birth weight
Babies born with low birthweight, caused by poor nutrition and smoking during pregnancy, have a higher rate of growth problems, sickness, learning problems and developmental delays than normal birthweight children. Low birthweight babies are also at an increased risk of dying during the first twelve months of life.

Chronic diseases such as asthma
Substandard housing and second-hand smoke contribute to childhood asthma in poor children.

Obesity and high blood pressure
Children living in poor neighborhoods often lack access to safe playgrounds, parks or organized sports. Many families living in poverty, especially in urban areas, are unable to access fresh, nutritious and healthy food.

Lack of school readiness
Children living in poverty often do not have school supplies or books in the home. Low parental education and single-parent families also factor into school readiness.

Toxic stress
Living in poverty is stressful for parents and their children. Stress causes damage to the developing brains of children and affects their physical and mental health as they become adolescents and adults.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Children living in poverty have a higher rate of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Violence than children living above the poverty line. These stressful experiences can include homelessness, food insecurity, emotional neglect, long-term or permanent separation from a parent due to incarceration, hospitalization or death or family breakup.

As Catholics, we are committed both to the good work of charity, that is, helping individuals and families living in poverty with their immediate needs: shelter, food and clothing. But CCHD’s Poverty Awareness Month is intended to bring to our attention the realities faced by poor people and the communities they live in; the underlying structural causes of poverty in our nation and our state; and then act in accord with the Gospel and the principles of Catholic Social Teaching with the poor and other people of good will to create a more just and equitable society and economy.

Support for the advocacy and service work of Catholic Community Service throughout the diocese; the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Juneau and other faith-based and community initiatives are good ways to do our part to assist and advocate for our neighbors who are living in poverty.

For more information about poverty in the United States and Poverty Awareness Month please visit: www.povertyusa.org