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Helping the poor is a Christian duty, and the Catholic Church has always been a leader in the works of charity. However in this country we have the opportunity to do more than offer charity; we can be leaders in preventing poverty. This is a task for which the Church is particularly suited.
Experts tell us there are three things which taken together dramatically decrease the chance a person will be poor: 1) Finishing high school, 2) Getting a job, 3) Getting married before you have a baby.
Education -- While college is not essential, a solid high school education is the minimal requirement for most employment, particularly a job that can lift the graduate out of poverty and into income security.
Catholic schools have for generations provided quality education which helped the children of immigrants move out of poverty. The problem is that, as the Catholic educated moved up, they moved out of the inner city neighborhoods and into the suburbs, leaving the parishes and schools that had helped them achieve their success without local support. Many dioceses have devoted resources to keeping these schools open, but much more can be done. While it would be great if the government instituted voucher programs or if additional charter schools were available to provide quality education for the poor, we shouldn't hold our breath. There are poor children out there right now who can't wait. They need better schools now, and this is a task at which the Catholic Church has excelled. All Catholics need to commit themselves to supporting schools that serve the poor. These schools serve the double task of evangelization and preventing poverty.
Jobs -- Welfare programs are a safety net for those who need emergency relief or have suffered unforeseen losses, but permanent welfare is a poverty trap, which leaves generations of mothers, children, and grandchildren dependent on government handouts. The way out of poverty is not welfare or charity, but a job.
My daughter is a teacher at Lexington College, a small Catholic school in Chicago, which prepares young women for jobs in the hospitality industry, while at the same time providing spiritual formation. The school focuses on the theology of service. Graduates are in demand. A good paying job with one of the leading companies in the field is virtually guaranteed. We need more institutions that prepare students for careers and scholarships for needy students.
Marriage -- We should sell the importance of marriage before babies. Our children need to be told about the link between marriage and poverty. Those who follow the Catholic teaching on waiting until marriage to engage in sexual intimacy aren't going to have a baby outside marriage and, among many other positive benefits, have a better chance of avoiding poverty.
Sex makes babies. Every baby has a biological father and mother. Separating a child from one or both biological parents is perceived by the child as a loss.
Parenthood is a job designed for two people -- specifically a father and a mother. A single parent must work twice as hard to do a job designed for two parents and is therefore more likely to fall into poverty.
The Church needs to encourage marriage and challenge some of the current customs, such as couples living together before marriage. Young women need to be disabused of the idea that living together is the path to a successful marriage. It may serve the male desire for easy sex and free housekeeping while not having to make a real commitment, but the young women need to be told that they are not a pair of shoes ordered on approval and returned if they don't please.
Also it might be time to question the ever-increasing size and cost of weddings. There is no evidence that spending two years of time and thousands of dollars for an extravagant wedding will insure the marriage will succeed. Shorter engagements and smaller weddings may be a wiser course.
Also the fear of divorce and marrying young has led to some parents to discourage marriage when pregnancy occurs before marriage. It used to be that there was pressure on the young man to "do the right thing" and marry the young woman he had impregnated. Today, many parents discourage marriage even when the couple desires it. Contrary to modern fears, many of these "forced" marriages prove to be very lasting. Everyone needs to remember that once a child is conceived the couple is forever linked to each other through their baby.
Jesus told us that the poor will always be with us and always need our charity, but that shouldn't prevent us from doing all we can to prevent poverty.
Dale O'Leary is a freelance writer and author of "The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality" and "One Man, One Woman."