How do you define “poverty”? The American Heritage Dictionary defines poverty as “a lack of money or material comforts; want; deficiency in amount.” The federal government defines poverty by analyzing consumer variables and then establishing a “poverty line.”

Based on your income, you are either above or below the line. For example, in 2014, the federal poverty line for a family of four was $23,850. If your income was less than that amount, you are living in poverty. Most would argue, however, that a family of four making $24,000 is also living in poverty. There are also local data that further define the issue: In 2013, the poverty rate for Onondaga County was 15.4 percent; in the city of Syracuse it was 33.2 percent. The percentage of children living in poverty in the city of Syracuse was 46.9 percent.

January is Poverty Awareness Month. It’s an opportunity for all of us to take a moment to consider our own definition of poverty as well as our personal views of this devastating issue.

There’s a great temptation to define poverty as solely a monetary, “bottom line” issue. At Catholic Charities, we define poverty as being poor in resources, opportunities and spirit. When you are poor in resources, you not only lack money and material goods, you lack meaningful relationships that are nurturing and supportive. When you are poor in opportunities, your world becomes small and your potential is constrained. When you are poor in spirit, it’s hard to get up in the morning.

As we take into account the plight of the poor, we must acknowledge the unique circumstances of each person, including his or her environment and background. There’s a bigger picture surrounding the issue of poverty and there’s no “one size fits all” approach to solving it.

That said, there are efforts across the United States and here in Syracuse to reduce poverty and its debilitating effects. At Catholic Charities, we believe that one of the best ways to reduce poverty is to provide the people we serve with the opportunity to work. This is easier said than done, however, since the employment prospects for many of the people we serve are pretty low.

To overcome this challenge, Catholic Charities started a property maintenance business called Project Joseph. Named after St. Joseph, the patron saint of work, Project Joseph employs people we serve — namely, men from our homeless shelter and refugees. These employees work shoulder-to-shoulder with professional property management staff handling a wide range of jobs, from interior painting, cleaning and light repair work to major cleanouts, trash hauling and minor renovations.

Currently, Project Joseph maintains Catholic Charities’ dozen properties and 200 apartments and has a number of private market jobs with individual homeowners. This past fall, the Project Joseph team planted over 400 trees, built a ramp for an elderly homeowner, renovated offices, repaired masonry on a building and did an exterior paint job.

The number of people we serve who are now working full-time for Project Joseph is up to ten and growing. They come to work every day and they function as part of a team. There is a sense of camaraderie as they take pride in their work and learn a new trade. If they do a good job, we will act as a reference for them so that they can compete for a private market job. In the meantime, they are employed and contributing. More importantly, they have a renewed sense of self-worth.

Our Project Joseph slogan is, “There’s dignity in hard work.” In the end, we believe efforts that promote human dignity and self-worth not only serve the common good, but also provide a pathway out of poverty — a valuable lesson we have learned from Project Joseph.

Mike Melara is the executive director of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County. Learn more about CCOC’s programs and read Mike’s blog at For more information about Project Joseph, call (315) 424-1800.

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