ON Jan. 8, 1964, just seven weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy, President Johnson gave his State of the Union address. He boldly announced, "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it." A noble trumpet call to arms to battle against the raging inequity devastating so many Americans.
That was 50 years and eight presidents ago. That was $20 trillion ago. Yet, despite all the food, housing, medical assistance and social services to those who live in poverty, the poverty rate in America is not much better than in the days of Johnson. No government can wash away the plague of poverty with a flood of cash. Poverty is much wider and deeper than the lack of material possessions.
Thus, helping the poor is never a matter of simply dropping more dollars in charity funds or packing our food pantries to feed the hungry. Without a doubt, these generous works are indispensable and much needed today. But there is more to eradicating poverty. Seeing the solution to poverty through the lens of finances and material possessions is myopic. More money, more resources, more medical benefits are not the total answer.
There are two battlefields where the war on poverty must be fought. The first frontline is the family. In homes where there is only a mother, the likelihood of living in poverty is four times greater than in homes where there is a mother and a father. Furthermore, the number of children born out of wedlock has increased significantly. From 8 percent in the 1960s, it has now skyrocketed to more than 40 percent. Our society has rejected the intimate connection between the gift of human sexuality and marriage. And, the results are not healthy. More broken homes. More children with one parent.
Today, government welfare programs are actually working against the family unit. It is financially more rewarding for single mothers to remain unmarried than to form a family and establish a home. Greater assistance is available from the government. As a result, children are being denied the most essential way out of poverty, a stable home with a mother and a father.
The second battleground on which to fight for the poor is business. Business is not evil. Enterprise is not sinful. Many good business people run their companies honestly, providing just wages for their employees. Making a profit is not a sin per se. In fact, Pope Francis has said that "Business is - in fact - a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life" (Message of Pope Francis to the Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum on the Occasion of the Annual Meeting at Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 17, 2014).
Pope Francis has not hesitated to blast systems that produce gross inequality between the rich and the poor. In his apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium," he labeled unfettered capitalism as "a new tyranny." The world is to be served by wealth, not ruled by it. The pope has done more than just call for a reform of the economic causes of injustice. He points out the need for action that goes "beyond a simple welfare mentality." Following the consistent teaching of his predecessors, he centers on the rights of the individual person to a decent life.
Pope Francis has gone to the heart of the matter. Businesses and structures, governments and programs do not exist apart from the people who run them. Poverty stalks the land when those who are blessed with material resources - and spiritual ones as well - see these resources not as gifts given by God, but as possessions to be used for their own comfort. It is within the hearts of individuals, therefore, that the struggle against greed must first be won before the poor can be effectively helped. For this reason, Pope Francis speaks not just to the mind, but to the heart; not just about principles, but about real people who suffer and die.
Speaking about the cold indifference that often hardens the heart to the suffering of others, the pope has said, "If, in so many parts of the world, there are children who have nothing to eat, that's not news. It seems normal. It cannot be this way! Yet, these things become the norm: that some homeless people die of cold on the streets is not news. In contrast, a 10-point drop on the stock markets of some cities is a tragedy. A person dying is not news. But, if the stock markets drop 10 points, it is a tragedy! Thus, people are disposed of, as if they were trash" (General Audience on Wednesday, June 5, 2013).
Just 0.7 percent of our country's gross domestic product could eliminate the most severe forms of poverty within two years. But, in the war against poverty, it is not enough to let the crumbs fall from our table to the poor who are at our doorstep. We need, as committed followers of Jesus, to engage all our efforts to create the personal and social conditions in which poverty cannot breed. This means standing publicly for the family as God intended: a mother and a father with their children. It means respecting the dignity of the individual by promoting the basic values of honesty and integrity, chastity and compassion. It is all of one piece. Poverty is always more than a matter of money.