In Focus

Sep 23, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Inspiring Big Changes in How We Address Poverty: What I Take Away from Pope Francis’ Visit

By Tom Salyers

Most mornings, I walk past St. Matthew’s Cathedral where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass this afternoon. I see homeless people out front seeking pocket change from parishioners leaving Mass and—on Monday mornings—receiving food, clothing, and toiletries from the church’s homeless ministry.

For me, the take away from the Pope’s visit is not a religious one.  Rather, we should all take away a sense of momentum. We should commit to truly seeing the homeless and poor people we’re accustomed to walking past, as well as pursuing large-scale changes that help the most vulnerable.

Welcome Pope Francis

One of my first experiences with social change came in my 20s when I was a member of an urban Atlanta Catholic parish with a very active social justice ministry. In addition to serving people who were hungry and homeless, the church was a pioneer in the early stages of the AIDS crisis with its outreach and support to those afflicted with HIV and AIDS. I became actively engaged in the life of Joseph, a man with HIV who lived in public housing and used a wheelchair. What began with my providing him weekly transportation to Mass blossomed into a friendship that lasted more than a decade until Joseph’s untimely death from complications of AIDS. As a young adult with a corporate job, and still in the process of finding myself, this taught me the value of seeing real needs up close and participating in a community committed to making a difference.  

Even though I moved away from regular church attendance, that early experience showed me the importance of understanding the lives of poor and vulnerable people through their eyes, in their own words and experiences—and the importance of contributing to substantial and positive change. 

Since leaving the corporate world for nonprofit social change organizations 20 years ago, I have seen those two principles—understanding the reality of low-income people’s lives and staying committed to large-scale, systemic change—motivate the work of passionate people who bring a wide range of faith and secular perspectives.  At CLASP, our talented team works every day to understand vulnerable people’s lives through both individual stories and the power of data and research to bring many stories together. At the same time, we stay focused on the opportunity for large-scale policy and systems change that can improve the trajectory of many people’s lives at once, however discouraging a particular day’s policy or budget news.  (For example, just last week we analyzed new data from the U.S. Census Bureau to shine a light on those most affected by poverty as well as public policies like the Affordable Care Act and the Earned Income Tax Credit that are making meaningful positive changes in people’s lives.) Our emphasis on facing problems head on while also insisting on solutions is what makes us an effective voice for change. And as CLASP’s communications director who is responsible for bringing to the public the depth of our knowledge about data and solutions, I relish the good stories we can tell in the face of an otherwise despairing situation where even one person living in poverty is too many, let alone the 14.8 percent of Americans who are poor.

So, when I peer down the block today at the excitement surrounding the pope’s visit to St. Matthew’s, I will channel that energy into a renewed enthusiasm for effecting change, building on the inspiration I gained many years ago through my early experiences with social justice, brought to life for me through Joseph.

Jun 3, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Pennsylvania House GOP: Poverty Isn't a Partisan Problem

by Lauren French and Jodie Levin-Epstein
With 1.6 million Pennsylvanians living in poverty, the Pennsylvania House Majority Policy Committee, the legislative policy development arm of the House Republican Caucus, launched its Empowering Opportunities: Gateways Out of Poverty initiative in July 2013.  

The effort is designed to identify and examine “the barriers in place for individuals and families attempting to reach self-sufficiency.” The Committee recently released a mid-term report, “Beyond Poverty,” which identifies such barriers as unaffordable child care, lack of  health care, a criminal record, limited financial literacy skills, inadequate education, homelessness, mental health problems, hunger, substance abuse, lack of transportation, and  “benefits cliffs” in which earnings increases jeopardize eligibility for benefits programs.

The House GOP Committee received some kudos for being inclusive and reaching across the political spectrum throughout the initiative. For example, in a blog post entitled “Poverty Isn’t A Partisan Problem,” the free-market Commonwealth Foundation applauded the Committee for inviting stakeholders of all perspectives to share their insights. The more liberal-oriented  Community Action Association of Pennsylvania also celebrated the Committee’s work-to-date by awarding the Republican chair its Public Official of the Year for his “leadership in making poverty a priority issue.”  

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has also been complimentary, stating that “the report accurately outlines many of the barriers facing the low-income Pennsylvanians we see every day, including lack of jobs and employment opportunities, criminal records, lack of affordable child care, transportation, and health insurance, and the inability to move forward in life in the face of hunger and homelessness. We look forward to continuing to work with… the committee as they move into Phase Two of their efforts.”  At the same time, the group noted that they “would have liked to see the report pay more attention to the fact that a changing economy, with a greater share of low-wage jobs with few benefits, has made escaping poverty much harder.”

As the Committee moves forward from its initial analysis to its recommendations, anti-poverty advocates across the nation should stay tuned to see whether the across-the-aisle approach holds. While there are bound to be differences over policy solutions, there may also be some common ground. If elected officials and other stakeholders can have a healthy debate in Pennsylvania, perhaps anti-poverty policies can be the focus of civil discourse in other states and at the national level as well. After all, Pennsylvania’s slogan is “America Starts Here.”

May 7, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

House Budget Committee and Anti-Poverty Programs

By Lauren French

Can we solve poverty by cutting programs designed to alleviate it?  The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty has given the powerful House Budget Committee and its chair, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) a “hook” to drive attention to such federal programs  and a platform for discussing whether and to what degree to continue investments in them.

Ryan has released his budget and held a set of hearings. The latest hearing, held April 30 was entitled “Lessons from the Frontlines.”

The hearing witnesses offered their perspectives on the role of federal funding in fighting poverty. The first two witnesses to testify, Robert Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, and Bishop Dr. Shirley Holloway, founder of House of Help City of Hope, work with individuals facing a variety of issues including drug addiction, incarceration, and homelessness. Both expressed criticism of federal anti-poverty spending and advocated for faith-based programs. Woodson testified that “compassion for the poor cannot be defined by how much we spend on them.” Holloway agreed with Woodson, adding that “love is greater than any dollar.”

In response to these witnesses, Budget Committee member Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) voiced her concerns noting , “we also need public policies that provide opportunity for all.”   Private charities themselves argue they cannot possibly make up for large federal cuts.  For example, the Ryan budget cuts would slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP,” formerly known as food stamps) by $137 billion over 10 years. Another witness, Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, adamantly defended federal programs such as Head Start and the Earned Income Tax Credit. “The War on Poverty has lifted millions of children and families out of poverty,” Edelman testified, “and I am very concerned that 50 years later some people think the best way forwards is backwards – trying to unravel the very investments that have had such impact and given millions of children a new lease on life and hope for the future.”

Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget makes profound cuts to those investments.   A recent analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes that the budget plan would achieve the vast bulk of its “savings”  by making cuts  to programs that serve low-income families and individuals; in fact, fully  69 percent of non-defense cuts would be made to  such programs

At the hearing,  committee Democrats challenged the “Path to Prosperity”  budget plan and stressed the need for federal funding as central to  an effective anti-poverty agenda. “We want the same thing as the other side wants, which is to get rid of programs that don’t work,” explained Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), “But damn it, many of these programs do work and many of these programs are the difference between life and death in our community.”

Click here to watch a video recording of the hearing.  

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