Measures of Desperation

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poverty2_copyCatholic Charities joins campaign to increase public assistance

By luke eggleston
SUN staff writer

Three dollars and sixty cents will buy the following: a head of lettuce and a loaf of bread. Maybe.

And yet, New Yorkers who subsist on public assistance must live on $3.60 a day.

Last year, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski went grocery shopping on a $21 budget, the amount that one of that state’s food stamps recipients spends weekly on groceries. The governor was forced to go without certain basic purchases such as coffee and a can of Progresso soup priced at $1.53. Even those items many Americans might consider minor would have gone over the budget.

The governor demonstrated the extraordinary challenge of living on public assistance in the state of Oregon, but the adversity faced by the poor in New York State is no less critical.

In New York State, a family of three on public assistance receives $594 in welfare and $326 per month in food stamps, which does not even cover typical rent and utility bills for an average two-bedroom apartment, according to Paul Welch of Catholic Charities-Onondaga County.

Despite rising inflation, public assistance grant levels have not increased during the last 18 years. Meanwhile, the poverty rates throughout the Syracuse Diocese (with the exception of Chenango County) have increased.

“There are roughly 10,000 people in Onondaga County who are on public assistance. Over 60 percent of them happen to be children. It’s been 18 years since the welfare grant was last increased and it’s ridiculously low,” Welch said. “The welfare grant is about half of the poverty level. When you add in food stamps you’re at about 70 percent of the poverty level so it’s in an untenable position for families that are really poor.”

One mother of two who lives in Syracuse subsists on public assistance, which provides her with $648 per month and $408 in food stamps. Her rent alone is $450 per month for a small apartment on the West Side, leaving her with approximately $150 per week to provide for her family of three. “Michelle” has moved three times in the last two years.

In February, she was forced to move because the small apartment house she was living in was condemned. Several units in the building were infested with mice and cockroaches. In addition, the unit her family was living in did not offer a stove or a refrigerator so “Michelle” needed to purchase food on a daily basis.

“I go to Save-a-Lot because it’s way cheaper and it stretches [my budget], but sometimes I do have to go to the pantry,” she said.

In order to help those who live in poverty, Catholic Charities recently launched a campaign to petition New York legislators to raise welfare.

The campaign launched by Catholic Charities at the local level was inspired by a nationwide initiative of Catholic Charities USA, a statewide effort that includes several organizations, and the public policy initiatives of the New York State Catholic Conference.

Catholic Charities-Onondaga County has been working with several parishes including St. Cecilia’s Church in Solvay, St. John’s and St. Joseph the Worker in Liverpool, Holy Family in DeWitt and St. Vincent de Paul in Syracuse. Several students from Le Moyne College are also helping Catholic Charities with its petition campaign. The heart of the campaign is a series of petitions that will be sent to the governor and to other lawmakers calling for an increase in the welfare grant.

During the Lenten season, Welch suggested that local Catholics use the food stamp amount of $3.60 per day for food and drink and give the savings to a local food pantry or to a Third World project such as Catholic Relief Services’ Rice Bowl. Although that suggestion was specific to Lent, Welch noted that concern for the plight of the poor should be part of one’s life throughout the year.

“I think Lent is just a time of deeper reflection and that should help invigorate us through the rest of the year. It just gives us an opportunity to step back and say, ‘Are we following the will of God? Are we following Christ’s example?’ Those are the two factors, which are joined,” Welch said. “[It’s] not a Lenten petition, but a poverty petition and we’ll be asking for a welfare increase from our state legislators to really make that a thing that really isn’t optional. It’s a thing that really needs to be done on a regular basis. As Catholics we’re going to continue to work on it.”

Sister Bridget Lennon, MFIC, is the director of human development at St. Cecilia’s. She is also the food pantry coordinator and encounters people on welfare as well as the working poor on a routine basis. The food pantry at St. Cecilia’s serves 50 to 60 families throughout the year. Those numbers jump to 120 families during the holiday season.

Sister Bridget noted that the rise in the poverty level places stress on food pantries. In addition, the increasing rate of inflation makes it more difficult for people to donate to the food pantry.

“We’re only there to supplement it [public assistance] and it’s harder now to supplement it,” Sister Bridget said. “It’s more of a strain now because food has gone up so people can’t give as much.”

Welch noted that Sister Bridget and the parish community at St. Cecilia’s are very supportive of the poverty petition.

The difficulty of climbing out of poverty is compounded by the low minimum wage. Roger Evans of the New York State Labor Department noted that in 1968 minimum wage jobs paid $1.68 per hour. At that time, he said, such jobs were usually held by teenagers and secondary wage earners. Now, minimum wage jobs are often standard. Nevertheless, minimum wage has failed to match increasing inflation. Evans said that if the rate had kept pace with inflation, minimum wage in 2007 would have been $9.27 per hour.

“Generally, if you run the numbers, you’re better off working than you are on welfare. But it’s a horrible climb,” Welch said. “We just increased in New York State the minimum wage and the federal government just increased minimum wage and it had lagged way behind. People on minimum wage are just making it, if they’re making it at all.”

Sister Bridget said that many of the people who utilize the food pantry at St. Cecilia’s are employed.

“One woman came here [to the food pantry] — and she’s a working woman — and she said that she had to put her children to bed hungry the night before. I believed her,” Sister Bridget said. “Because I know her, that’s the kind of thing that bothers me. She’s the kind of person who wants to make it on her own but it’s very, very difficult.”

Sister Bridget served at St. Michael’s Church on Onondaga Hill 25 years ago before her order, the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, assigned her to Georgia. She returned to Central New York five years ago.

“What amazed me is that the poor are still poor,” she said. “It’s cyclical. It’s generation after generation and we have to break that chain. Education seems to be the key.”

Welch echoed Sister Bridget’s words.

“[The living conditions of the poor are] increasingly getting worse. This is a community issue that we really have to look at. Education is really the way to get out of poverty and we really have to work in every way that we can to help the parents and the kids get an education,” Welch said.

Poverty creates poor conditions for education, however.

“We’ve really got to work on that one. One of the things is that when you give people so little money to live on, you have the statistic that over a third of the children in the Syracuse school district move more than one time during the year and it’s not at all unusual to have children moving two, three times because people don’t have enough money to pay the rent or to pay their utilities,” Welch said. “The social fabric is frayed and with that our children are just being dragged along. We’ve got to find ways to make the fabric in our society a little bit stronger and help these children.”

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