Happy New Year! As I began typing this blog, I found myself thinking about all the ways individuals and families mark the arrival of a new year; some watch parades and football, some go to the gym, others find themselves in a worship service; and still others spend the day reflecting on the past year and all the things they’d like to change in the new one. New Year’s Day has certainly become a day when we focus on our own selves – whether it’s watching our favorite team or contemplating a major life change.
However, January 1st is also the World Day of Peace and marks the beginning of Poverty Awareness Month; a month set aside to call attention to the growth of poverty in the U.S. So in addition to beginning my year thinking about all the New Year’s resolutions I wanted to make, I found myself thinking about Maria and Jose, Jimmy, and Sandy.*
When I managed Catholic Charities’ food pantry in Des Moines, we served anywhere from 200-400 families a day in need of some type of assistance. Maria and Jose belonged to one of those families. Almost daily, they would come into the pantry with their mother and would petition me for candy while she looked through the clothing closet for 5-10 minutes; taking only what she needed.
One day when they showed up, I asked their mother how she was doing and she responded, “Bien cansada, bien cansada”; which translates, “I’m really tired.” When I asked her why she was tired, she proceeded to share how she was working 50-60 hours a week at two jobs. Her husband was disabled and unable to work, so she was the breadwinner for her family; trying to make ends meet on two part-time service jobs that likely did not pay more than $10.00/hour. Midway through our brief conversation, she switched to perfect English and said, “That damn social worker told me I make too much money to qualify for any assistance. What I want to know is: where is all this money I’m supposed to be making?!”
This mom – even working 50-60 hours a week – made too much money to qualify for assistance, but not enough to live on. Maria and Jose, two of the most bright-eyed and beautiful children I’ve ever met, were victims of this gap between a minimum or low wage and a living wage.
I also thought of Jimmy, who often came into the pantry with his sister. Jimmy had a disability that prevented him from working full-time, but he did not let that stop him from being the first person to accept my invitation to help with poverty simulations we offered for the community. Jimmy told me he was anxious to be part of something that would help people understand what it’s really like to be in poverty. Though I left the food pantry in 2011, Jimmy still occasionally calls me just to see how I’m doing. We recently chatted between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I also thought of Sandy. Though I only saw Sandy twice at the food pantry, I remember her well. I remember her because – when she stepped into the food pantry with her head hung low in utter embarrassment – her first words to me were: “I shouldn’t be here. I have a college degree. I wasn’t ever supposed to be here.” Her words and expression are forever etched in my heart and mind.
In my five years of interaction with the guests at the food pantry, these were the typical stories I heard from people in poverty.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops in their Catholic social teaching documents on the Preferential Option for the Poor, have said, “A basic moral test of society is how its most vulnerable members are faring. Our tradition calls us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first” (Mt. 25:31-46). The call of Mt. 25 certainly isn’t exclusive to Catholicism; it is an integral part of every Christian faith tradition.
So, how are we doing? How are the poor faring today? If Maria and Jose, Jimmy and Sandy’s lives are our measure, then it seems to me we have some work to do to ensure the needs of the poor are being addressed. That’s why part of my New Year’s resolution this year includes a continued commitment to do my part to end poverty in our world. And, my New Year’s hope is that many others will join me in this commitment, so the Maria’s, Jose’s, Jimmy’s and Sandy’s of the world no longer have to worry about having their daily needs met and can live with the God-given sense of dignity they deserve.
New Year’s blessings to you and your families,
*Names have been changed to ensure confidentiality and protect dignity.