On the eve of its 100th anniversary, Catholic Charities USA is facing an array of new challenges brought on by the prolonged economic recession. In its latest nationwide survey, Catholic Charities USA reports a dramatic increase in the demand for food, counseling and rent and mortgage services. Coupled with a decline in state and federal funding, the organization finds itself confronting unique demands at a critical juncture in its history.
“At the very time when [the agencies’] needs are greatest, some of their resources are drying up,” said the Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, in an interview with America.
The driving force behind the increased demand is the loss of jobs, Snyder said, noting not only the high unemployment in urban areas like Detroit but also the diminishing number of jobs in rural areas. “Rural areas frequently get forgotten because there really aren’t many people out there standing up as their spokesperson,” he said.
Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, for example, has seen a 100 percent increase in clients at their food bank. At the Catholic Charities of Central Texas, the food pantry fed more people in October 2009 than in any other month in its history: 719 households, or 2,637 people.
The survey also indicated that:
• 70 percent of agencies saw an increase in demand for food stamps;
• 85 percent reported increased requests for rent or mortgage assistance;
• 42 percent saw an increase in demand for counseling and mental health services.
The survey is based on responses from 74 Catholic Charities agencies from around the country and covers the third quarter of 2009. Catholic Charities began compiling the data at the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008 because, Snyder said, “someone needed to chronicle what’s actually going on in the local communities.”
Father Snyder emphasized that while U.S. communities sometimes face unique, localized challenges, local or state agencies are not equipped to handle major social problems on their own. Assistance from the federal government is key to economic recovery. “They are the only ones with adequate resources to have a huge impact,” Snyder said.
Catholic Charities USA agencies receive significant assistance from state and federal government sources. The relationship between the three entities has been the subject of recent controversy. Last month Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., threatened to sever longstanding social service agreements between the city and local Catholic Charities if the council passed a bill that would force private agencies receiving public funds to provide benefits for same-sex partners. The bill has since passed, but the archdiocese has nonetheless pledged to continue services.
Despite such events, Father Snyder stressed that the relationship between the government and Catholic Charities has been a fruitful one. He noted that the first nonprofit agency to receive a grant from the federal government was the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, D.C., in 1872. “From the beginning of this country, Catholic Charities and the Catholic Church have worked within the political system to further the values that we have,” Snyder said. “We’ve always had an agreement that the government would respect the parameters of our faith,” he added. Yet as legislators redefine civil liberties, a conflict with Catholic institutions may be inevitable.
“What we have to do here is see if there’s common ground,” Snyder said, “and if there’s not, then Catholic Charities will have to pull away” from certain government contracts.
To hear a recording of the interview with Father Snyder, visit americamagazine.org/podcast.