Main Street Still Waits For the Recovery

Wall Street is flying high after March 2009 lows; worker productivity and economic growth are up; and there are some indications of a housing market that could be recovering from its tailspin. But a new report from Catholic Charities USA suggests it is far too soon to begin humming “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Its first quarter 2010 snapshot survey of the state of the nation’s social services raises the question: Where is the recovery?

Emergency federal support allowed many states to delay a fiscal reckoning, but now cash-strapped states are building 2011 budgets that promise a brutal impact on the nation’s most at-risk communities, particularly children, whose health, educational and other social services are likely to be profoundly diminished if not eliminated altogether. The jobless recovery has left previously reliable breadwinners and charitable donors seeking help themselves.

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The Catholic Charities USA survey paints a vivid picture of the new realities of an increasingly distressed American middle class. Of the agencies responding to the survey, 61 percent report an increase in middle-class families seeking assistance; 72 percent report an increase in the working poor coming for assistance. More than half reported that more homeless people need their help. In Yakima, Wash., it is not uncommon to hear the words: “We’ve never had to ask for help like this before.”

“For millions of hard-working Americans, the crisis is only beginning,” said the Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA. “We live in the richest and smartest country on earth, but our children are hungry. We must take responsibility for this gross injustice and advocate for real sustainable change to ensure the common good of every American.”

Keeping a roof over their heads appears to be the biggest issue for U.S. families as 75 percent of agencies report an increase in requests for rent and mortgage assistance since the fourth quarter of 2009. In Reno, Nev., there has been a dramatic increase in the need for food. Corpus Christi, Tex., is seeing a large number of moderate-income families and individuals accessing financial assistance programs.

The results of the survey align with a national real unemployment rate stuck at about 18 percent: 89 percent of agencies report an increase in unemployment, 64 percent an increase in underemployment. According to respondents, a lack of jobs paying a livable wage (83 percent) and a lack of jobs in general (64 percent) are huge barriers to employment and self-sufficiency.

As requests for help increase and resources diminish, local social service agencies are forced to make heartbreaking changes—cutting programs, scaling down operations, redeploying and laying off staff and turning people away. In a blog post Father Snyder called for a new values base in the country, one where the common values of caring for one another replaces the “greed is good” mantra that has dominated Wall Street for the last 30 years. Citing Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Charity in Truth” of 2009, Father Snyder wrote: “The social element must be embodied in the economic one so that the market becomes an instrument of civilization once again. We need big, innovative ideas about how to meld our market economy with the common good so as to avoid collateral damage in the future.”

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