Tiziana C. Dearing: Difficult choices for the poor

Tiziana C. Dearing

All winter long, those of us serving the poor worried about heat. Would people have it? Would they be able to afford it? Would they have to choose between heat and other basic needs, such as food? The answer was "yes," they would have to choose.

Over the course of the first three months of 2008, the Catholic Charities West community service center in Natick provided assistance for fuel, rent and utilities to 350 area residents in need. The volume of food requests alone doubled from the same time period last year and rental assistance requests went up 12 percent.

There's something diabolical about an economy that forces a choice between staying warm in the winter and eating in the spring and summer months. And there's something disturbing about a conversation in which everyone talks about the economy, and no one talks about the basic needs of the poor.

All around us, the politics of the economy rages. Despite our legislators' best efforts, the Commonwealth faces a bleak budget picture, with at one point as much as $109 million in potential direct cuts. The various presidential candidates talk about the economy, who is to blame for its current state, and what it means for the working class. And in the private sector and in private philanthropy, the emphasis is on programs that create long-term, systemic change.

A focus on long-term change and the middle class is critical, but everyone - public and private citizen alike - also must be committed to taking care of basic needs today. It is necessary to "teach a man to fish." But especially when the odds are this heavily stacked against the poor and working poor, we have a vested interest in giving the man a fish, too. It is fundamental to respecting human dignity. It is a basic part of our social safety net, and it is essential for maintaining a stable democratic order.

Our legislators in the Commonwealth have maintained a strong commitment to the poor and working poor over the years. They are to be commended. The poor and working poor often don't have strong voices, though, and when the state budget is under pressure, the loudest voices will get heard most clearly and most often.

Our national leaders are worried about votes, too. Their rhetoric focuses on the middle class, despite the fact that many who work as if they were middle class find themselves swelling the ranks of the poor.

Finally, the funding supply is getting leaner. Givers are taking care of the home front first, and seeking ever higher returns. Some who could give are not giving at all.

Again, all of this is understandable. In most cases, commendable. But when someone gets a cut, the first thing to do is stop the bleeding. The poor are bleeding. Making sure basic needs are funded - food, shelter, rent and utility relief, basic education and child care - is the triage step. One doesn't skip the step, or pass over the bleeders entirely, on the way to long-term recovery.

Call it charity. Call it a band-aid approach. Call it whatever you want. The measure of society in times like these is how we take care of our most vulnerable. Those of us serving the poor are still worried, but not half as worried as the poor themselves.

Tiziana C. Dearing is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.