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The Bishops’ War Against Poverty

Aleteia - published on 06/25/14

USCCB announces 2014 Campaign for Human Development grants.

For most American Catholics, poverty is an abstraction, something we may read about – as in statistics – but rarely encounter and never experience first-hand.

As a result, our reflection on the causes and effects of poverty are often equally abstract and tend to align with our prior ideological or partisan commitments.

But Pope Francis is telling us that’s not good enough.

“It is impossible to talk about poverty, about abstract poverty,” the Holy Father said last year. “That does not exist! Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus in this hungry child, in the sick person, in these unjust social structures.”

The truth of the individual situations of people in poverty always eludes easy analyses and theoretical remedies.

“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete,” says Pope Francis. “It means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely.” 

But here’s the statistical truth about poverty in the United States: In 2012, an estimated 46.5 million persons lived below the federal poverty line, the largest number in the 54 years that poverty has been tracked by the US Census Bureau. Thirteen percent of all men, 15% of all seniors, 16% of all women, and 22% of children – one in five – lives in poverty. Among households, only 6% of families headed by married couples are impoverished, but that figure rises to 30% of families headed by single mothers. Poverty is more prevalent in rural America (17%) than it is in cities (14%).

For the last four decades, the response of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to the concrete reality of poverty has been the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). You may be familiar with the name, especially if you make use of the budget envelopes provided by your local parish. CCHD is funded by an annual collection taken up in most dioceses on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, as well as private gifts. CCHD has a dual mission: “To help low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, their families and communities” and “to provide education and promote understanding about poverty and its root causes.”

Three different grant programs are administered by the CCHD. Community Development grants are focused on “education, advocacy, policy development and organizing.” They are available to local 501(c)(3) organizations in which at least 50% of board membership is made up of low-income persons and at least 50% of the organization’s work benefits low-income persons. These grants range from $25,000 to $75,000 and are renewable for up to six years.

Economic Development grants fund local “social enterprises, alternative financial institutions, community-held assets, worker-owned cooperatives,” and other economic development institutions (EDIs). These boards must include 33% low-income participation. These grants also range from $25,000 to $75,000, but are renewable for only three years and must include a 1:1 match.

Finally, Strategic National grants are made to large, multi-state organizations working in areas such as “criminal justice reform, immigration reform, economic justice, environmental justice, preserving a Circle of Protection around the poor and vulnerable, racial justice, and equitable economic development.” These grants can range as high as $500,000 and are renewable for up to five years.

All CCHD grant recipients must affirm in writing that they comply with Catholic Social Teaching and are not engaged in partisan political activity. Local bishops must review and endorse applications before grants are awarded.

Last week, the USCCB announced that the CCHD subcommittee of the USCCB, which is chaired by Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, had approved $14 million in grant funding for the 2014-2015. This includes $10 million for community and economic development grants, and $4 million for strategic national grants. This year’s awards won’t be announced until early July, but here’s a list of last year’s recipients. They include strategic national grants to the Democracy at Work Institute, an arm of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives; the National Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and Birth Choice Health Clinics, a Southern California chain that offers a range of pre- and post-natal services to pregnant women.

Not so long ago there was significant controversy in the Catholic community about some of CCHD’s grant recipients. It was charged that CCHD provided funds to organizations that also promoted abortion, contraception and homosexuality. CCHD denied the accusation, but there was disturbing evidence that a few of the organizations receiving funds did indeed have secondary or tertiary agendas that contradicted Catholic teaching. Given the fungibility of money, this presented a legitimate problem. The CCHD has since redoubled its efforts to ensure that no organization receiving funds actively works against Church teaching in another area. And in fact the leading group leading reform of the CCHD hasn’t posted an update to their website since 2011.

Pope Francis never fails to remind us that poverty – like abortion, war, sex trafficking and other evils – is a crime against the fundamental dignity of the human person. The support our bishops provide to local organizations fighting the battle against poverty is a concrete example of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor,” and a reminder that service to the needy is a primary path for living out the Christian vocation.

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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