Listening to a radio interview, you can hear the despair in Cynthia’s voice as she describes the fear of becoming homeless, again, and the threat of separation from her family if eviction happens. Cynthia, who worked in the hospitality industry in the St. Louis area, struggles to pay her bills after becoming unemployed last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. economy lost 22 million jobs from February to April 2020 (the start of the pandemic), the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
Many people returned to work, but Cynthia is desperately waiting. The leisure and hospitality industry remains down by 3.9 million jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported Feb. 5. Americans working in the professional and business sectors are faring much better. Cynthia’s voice quivers as she describes her precarious situation to interviewer Ari Shapiro on National Public Radio (Feb. 11, 2021). “I’m not like that, not paying my bills and don’t want to pay. I want to pay.”
Cynthia’s voice is one among millions crying out for help, not just for a food basket or temporary moratorium on evictions, but for systemic change that will provide for the dignity of a permanent paying job. The Pew Research Center reported in September, “Among lower-income adults, 46% say they have had trouble paying their bills since the pandemic started and roughly one third (32%) say it’s been hard for them to make rent or mortgage payments.”
Their struggles become clear in new reports about food insecurity and rising poverty rates. Nearly 30 million adults and as many as 12 million children “live in households struggling to afford food,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports (Jan. 22, 2021). The agency further states that more than one in five Black and Latino adults and many more children report food insecurity. The USDA defines food insecurity as a lack of “consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic worsened the crisis. Couple that with a recent report from Bloomberg News, citing a new study that the poverty rate increased by 2.4 percentage points in the latter half of 2020 (Quad-City Times, Jan. 31, 2021).
Congress approved $900 billion in additional federal aid in December, but not enough during a persistent pandemic in which people remain unemployed and distribution of the vaccine aimed at eradicating the virus has been frustratingly slow.
The Biden Administration has proposed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, but support for that level of funding is tenuous. Congress must pass a comprehensive relief package. Respond, SOS! As Catholics who have begun our Lenten journey, we accompany the suffering Jesus by accompanying his suffering people. We give as our financial means allow, we pray for life-affirming solutions to the pandemic and all crises in our world, and we give of our time by advocating for legislation that makes human flourishing for all a reality.
To start, look at our U.S. bishops’ request to Congress regarding a new COVID-19 relief package. The bishops wrote Feb. 3, “We especially encourage you to consider how additional COVID relief should promote the dignity and value of all human life and protect poor and vulnerable people who are most at risk.”
The bishops identified these priorities: hunger and nutrition, housing assistance, Catholic and nonpublic schools, pathway to citizenship and work authorization. Testing, vaccinations and treatment for all. Health care, employment and income support, access to stimulus payments. International response, state and local governments. Safety in prisons, jails and detention centers; racial justice; the charitable sector. Please contact members of Congress (usa.gov/elected-officials) to support these priorities. Encourage them to reach a just and wide-ranging solution that allows our country to respond, SOS.
Support the “Challenge to End Hunger” campaign of Catholic sisters in our diocese and around the nation during Catholic Sisters Week (March 8-14) and beyond. A story about the challenge appears in this week’s issue of The Catholic Messenger.
Go to the Iowa Catholic Conference website (iowacatholicconference.org) for updates on the progress of proposed bills that affect the wellbeing of all Iowans. The ICC provides good analysis of how bills apply to church teaching. For instance, the ICC is urging Catholics to contact their Iowa senator to express opposition to the proposed reinstatement of the death penalty in Iowa.
Finally, pray for Cynthia and the many other Americans struggling to make rent or mortgage payments, provide adequate nourishment for their families, and work in permanent jobs that pay a living wage and ensure self-sufficiency. See the suffering face of Jesus. Respond, SOS.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor