Diocese report puts focus on poverty

A new report contains sobering facts. About 40 percent of African-Americans and 44.8 percent of Lat
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Categories: Schenectady County

A new report contains sobering facts.

About 40 percent of African-Americans and 44.8 percent of Latinos in the city of Schenectady live in poverty. About 22 percent of adults in Fulton and Montgomery counties have not earned a high school diploma. More than 16 percent of non-elderly Montgomery County residents do not have health insurance.

Yet unlike most reports on poverty, this one is interspersed with biblical Scripture. A chapter on income insecurity is preceded by verses from the book of Isaiah: “They shall live in the houses they build and eat the fruit of the vineyards they plant. … And my chosen ones shall long enjoy the produce of their hands. They shall not toil in vain.”

The report, released last week by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, is titled “Poverty in the Diocese of Albany: A Threat to the Common Good” and provides a detailed look at poverty in the 14 counties that comprise the diocese. The report will be used to shape the diocese’s public policy agenda and make parishioners more aware of the poverty in their communities.

“We can inform people about what poverty looks like,” said Marianne Comfort, a sister of St. Joseph and public policy analyst at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany. “It’s not just something you can point to in New York City and Washington, D.C.”

Catholic Charities USA released a similar report on national poverty last year and has launched a Campaign to Reduce Poverty, which aims to cut poverty in the U.S. in half by 2020.

The report examines five factors contributing to poverty: income insecurity, educational disadvantages, hunger and inadequate nutrition, lack of health care and a shortage of affordable housing. It also contains the stories of people who have received help from Catholic Charities: a single mother struggling to keep her daughters in Our Lady of Victory School in Troy; a father who lost his ability to work and support his family when he fell from a ladder; a 16-year-old who found out she was pregnant but eventually completed her high school education.

John Steele, executive director of Catholic Charities of Schenectady County, said that 60 percent of the people who seek help from the Community Crisis Network, a program that assists needy people in Schenectady County, fall under the federal government’s definition of poverty. The people who go to the Community Crisis Network seek help with a range of problems: utilities, rent, transportation, homelessness.

“Housing is a huge problem in our community, and it seems to be a growing problem,” Steele said. “There are so many people in low-paying jobs without health insurance that can’t make ends meet. The expectation for the diocese is that as people in the pews read this report, they’ll be moved to help in some way.”

The report found that more than 40 percent of Schenectady County households are spending more than 35 percent of their income on rent, a level the federal government defines as unaffordable.

When the community crisis network, which is supported by a number of local anti-poverty agencies, was established seven or eight years ago, it served about 500 people a year, Steele said. Now, it serves more than 3,500, he said.

Comfort began working on the report in the summer. The statistics on children living in poverty “just blew me away,” she said. In the city of Schenectady, about 31 percent of children live in poverty; in Albany, about 41.6 percent of children live in poverty.

She was also surprised by some of the challenges in more rural areas, such as a lack of transportation.

“People are spending $60 on a cab so they can go to Oneonta and see a doctor,” she said.

Martha Pofit, director of public policy for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, said the report will guide this year’s conversations with state legislators. She said the diocese’s goals include raising the welfare benefit, which has not been increased since 1990, making sure all children have health insurance and seeing the state fully fund Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposed $400 million Housing Opportunity Fund, which would provide affordable and supportive housing. At the national level, Catholic Charities would like to see Congress create a national housing trust fund to provide housing for senior citizens and low-income people.

“We’d like to move away from a minimum wage mindset to a self-sufficiency [mindset],” Pofit said. She said Catholic Charities is supporting a New York State Community Action Association initiative that asks the Legislature to create a commission on poverty.

Poverty is of particular interest to Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard, who chairs the New York Catholic Bishops’ Public Policy Committee, as well as the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ domestic antipoverty program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

In an introductory letter to “Poverty in the Diocese of Albany,” Hubbard writes, “This report challenges us to fulfill the Gospel mandate to respond to the needs of the least among us.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany is currently engaged in a planning process titled “Called to Be Churched.” Clusters of parishes have formed 39 planning groups; each planning group has a Christian service committee that will use the poverty report as a resource for determining the needs in their communities and how best to address them.

The poverty report updates a similar report, called “Rebuilding the Covenant with the Poor,” that Catholic Charities put together in 2005.

“A lot of the information was very time-specific,” Comfort said. “It talked about what the governor was saying. We wanted a document that was less time-sensitive.” “Poverty in the Diocese,” Comfort said, will be updated in 2010, when new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau are released. The diocese will use it to update its public policy goals every year.

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