Taking a closer look at ‘the face of poverty today’

Categories: Around the Diocese,DMD


Fr. Larry Snyder

Father Larry Snyder is vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. A priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Father Snyder served as president of Catholic Charities USA from 2005 to 2014. He will present “The Face of Poverty Today: The Widow, the Orphan and the Stranger” at Diocesan Ministry Day Aug. 31 in St. Cloud. The following is an edited version of a recent interview The Visitor had with Father Snyder.

Q: Poverty is a complex issue, and you focused on it for a long time at Catholic Charities USA. When people talk about this issue, what is the one most important thing you want them to know?

Father Snyder: It’s the title of the talk I’ll be giving: the ‘Face of Poverty.’ Who really are the poor in this country? We still are plagued by a lot of misperceptions about who the poor are. When we learn who is living in poverty in America, who is at risk of living in poverty, it hits a lot closer to home than we tend to think.

It’s not the stereotypes of older men who are just trying to bilk the system or young mothers. … It is people who are struggling to stay above water, especially now after the great recession.

Q: In terms of what most surprises people when you talk about poverty, is it the fact that it is often closer to home than they might think? Or that their notion of who is poor is not always very accurate?

Father Snyder: Especially here in Minnesota, poverty frequently is invisible because it is the person who lives down the street, and we’re just not aware of how they are struggling. The poor have become more and more the working poor, and it’s become more and more children in this country.

Q: In the St. Cloud Diocese, once you get outside the St. Cloud metro area, we’re primarily a rural diocese. How serious of an issue is poverty in rural

Father Snyder: Here, again, I think it’s one of those invisible things because it’s not as obvious to us. People look at numbers and they say there’s a lot more poor in our cities than in rural areas. While the numbers are higher in urban areas because there’s a greater concentration of people, I think the percentages of people living in poverty in rural areas is sometimes higher than in urban areas.

Q: Often there are initiatives undertaken at the city and state levels to help reduce or cut down on poverty, even to try to eliminate it. But there are so many obstacles, and it’s easy sometimes to get cynical about what can be done. What really has to happen in this country to make a serious reduction in the poverty level?

Father Snyder: We need to assess the safety net that is in place because, if you talk to a lot of human services providers, they will tell you it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to get people out of poverty and, in fact, it helps people survive. But it doesn’t help them get out of poverty. If our goal is to get people out of poverty, we need to assess what we’re doing and ask if is it having an effect. We have to have an honest discussion about that, and if it’s not working, then let’s figure out how to do it. There are some ideas that are working around the country, which I will talk about at Diocesan Ministry Day. But it’s really hard when you want to change systems because a lot of people are invested in the status quo. Unfortunately, I think the poor are the ones who suffer.

Q: Can you give an example of an initiative that is happening that is making a real difference?

Father Snyder: For me, it goes back to setting the proper goal. If I use the example of providing shelter, we know how many people need shelter each and every night. So we build shelters, and they are full every night. We can tell you how many people access this and how many people’s lives are better for having a place to stay at night. But what we can’t tell you is, of the people who stay in our shelters, how many actually get out of poverty? Or, for how many of them was this a real help, rather than just a band-aid? That’s where if we’re setting our goals we will design our shelter programs in such a way that they really focus on how we give this person the ladder out of poverty that they’re looking for.

There are some examples of that. For example, here in the Twin Cities, Catholic Charities of the Twin Cities has a housing program — a seven-story building called Higher Ground. It starts on the bottom floor with just emergency shelter for folks who need to be brought in for the evening. As you go progressively up, the person becomes more and more independent, until you get to the top floor and it’s semi-independent living with the goal of actually placing people out on their own, in their own housing. There’s a clear progression.

People are encouraged and supported in doing this. It gives people a message. What’s the next step for me? How do I get to that floor above me? It’s respectful. Rather than simply ‘doing’ for people, it’s engaging people and helping them to have a real stake or ownership in the process.

Q: In terms of what parishes or individual Catholics can do to try to make a difference, what would you suggest, perhaps in addition to food shelf efforts and other charity work they may already be involved with?

Father Snyder: Those things are all good, all necessary and even critical in providing a safety net for people. American people are very generous, and people of faith — we Catholics — certainly do things out of the faithfulness we have to our obligations to those in need. But it’s also good to look at where real conversion happens. It happens in the interchange of people actually getting to know someone — to put a name to a face — so then we’re not talking just abstract numbers.

So, it’s not only good to give our resources but also to volunteer and be a part of things. There are lots of different programs throughout the St. Cloud Diocese where people can actually go to the food shelf and help, or go to the shelters and help, or parishes have outreach to people in their own pews or in their own neighborhood. You really gain a lot more understanding when you’ve heard somebody’s story, when you know their name. That’s the critical thing.