Why we all should care about poverty

If they’d work harder, they wouldn’t be poor.

I work hard for my money, so why should I help someone who’s lazy?

This is America, so anyone who works hard can achieve the American Dream: Health, Wealth and Happiness!

We’ve all heard these statements. Maybe we’ve said them. But what these generalizations have in common – besides focusing on people living in poverty – is they don’t recognize the complicated issue that poverty is.

Vicki Vicars, director of Mission, Equity & Resilience for Ursuline Sisters Mission, hopes to change that with an awareness campaign on social media coinciding with National Poverty in America Month.

Multiple social service agencies and nonprofits promote the January event, Vicars says, noting it’s especially important for residents of the Mahoning Valley.

“The national poverty rate was around 11.4% in 2020. In Youngstown it’s nearly 37.9% and has been as high as 49%,” she says. “A third of our residents are living at or below poverty level, meaning they have inadequate housing, food, transportation and health care.”

For the other 66%, and folks living in the surrounding communities, Vicars states, it can be difficult to understand why it matters.

“Poverty lowers the quality of life for the entire community,” she posits. “It robs people of their potential, of their ability to contribute their gifts to the community. When everybody can’t do their best and be their best, we all suffer.”

So what’s considered poverty by the U.S. government? In the contiguous United States and District of Columbia, it’s making $12,880 a year for one person and $26,500 for a family of four. A complete list for different size families, Alaska and Hawaii is found here.

Many of the U.S. citizens living in poverty, Vicars says, are senior citizens and children. In fact, more than half the children in Youngstown live in poverty.

Poverty, Vicars said, often is generational – meaning an adult living in poverty is likely to have lived in poverty as a child.

 “You’re caught in this web of not having enough,” Vicars explains. “When you’re concerned with where your next meal is coming from or where to safely put your children to bed at night, you don’t always have time to focus on your career path or getting a better job.”

Systemic measures keep people in poverty, she adds.

“If you have a good job and you get a raise, then might you lose child care credits or free health insurance,” Vicars observes, “but you still can’t afford them. So is it worth it to make another dollar or two an hour if you lose all these benefits and it doesn’t actually raise your quality of life?”

The stress and trauma of poverty robs people of both their potential and opportunity, she states.

“Nobody grows up and says they want to be poor,” Vicars states. “They want to support themselves and have full lives. They get trapped in this system that doesn’t give them options.”

Those who don’t suffer in poverty have options for making a difference, she says.

“Donating is important and one of the easiest ways to address poverty. People can recognize the legislation that impacts lifting people out of poverty,” Vicars says, noting the Ohio Poverty Law Center advocates for this, especially for children.

Concerned citizens also can advocate for job training and become a mentor for a student. Youngstown City Schools is collaborating with the police department to form such a program. Our Beatitude House ministry also seeks mentors for our Ursuline Sisters Scholars program.

“The prison industry can predict how many future cells they’ll need by the reading scores of second graders,” Vicars says. “Advocating for a better educational systems helps keep future generations out of prison.”

Children growing up in poor households lack connections with people who can nurture them through school and help them get jobs, she says.

“For decades, ministries of the Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown have worked to help local families escape poverty and have fullness of life,” Vicars observes. “They are working toward that for all God’s people.”

“One of the concrete ways that the Sisters and our colleagues in ministry show our love for God is by loving our neighbor,” said Sister Mary McCormick, general superior of the Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown. “In this we follow one of the great commandments of the bible. Helping individuals and families break the cycle of poverty through education and other outreach programs has always been a part of the mission of the Ursuline Sisters.”

Below are some of our ministries and other organizations helping families escape poverty:  

Ursuline Sisters Ministry Fund/Ursuline Sisters Mission
Beatitude House
Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry
Youngstown Dorothy Day House
St. Vincent de Paul Mahoning District
Catholic Campaign for Human Development