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Bishop Calls for Special Attention to Child Poverty

“The futures of so many children are at risk,” Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., writes in a new pastoral letter.

Issued in late November, it focuses on the plight of poor families and their children in a state where deindustrialization and “the disappearance of well-paying jobs” make it “difficult for working poor families to find jobs” that would “allow them to provide a decent life for their children.”

“We see the potential lost to youngsters when they are trapped in poverty,” writes Bishop Bransfield. “Loving hearts ache at the prospect of children doomed to defeat because of their circumstances.”

His pastoral letter, titled “Setting Children Free: Loosening the Bonds of Poverty in West Virginia,” casts a bright light on the needs of poor children and reflects a growing awareness of the extent of child poverty in the U.S.

A website established last year under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to spread the word about poverty in America notes that one of every five U.S. children lives in what it calls “Poverty USA.”

The child poverty statistics in West Virginia “are very distressing,” Bishop Bransfield comments. “One-quarter of West Virginians under the age of 18 lives in poverty,” he notes, but “for children below the age of 5, the poverty rate is over 30 percent.”

Though “the problem of poverty can at times appear so large as to be beyond any possibility of resolving it,” Bishop Bransfield wanted “to concentrate on one group of the poor,” notably children, for whom “we as a people of faith should have special concern.” He writes:

“In direct help, in advocating for beneficial policies and access to adequate health care and education, we must give special attention to children living in poverty.”

Listening Sessions

Bishop Bransfield’s pastoral letter shared many insights about poverty heard during listening sessions he asked his staff to conduct throughout the state. The sessions took place in “parishes and schools, soup kitchens and shelters, pastoral centers and Catholic Charities programs.”

The complexities of poverty were discussed not only frankly, but compassionately in these sessions.

There was mention, for example, of how a “terrible cycle of poverty, generation after generation, becomes a real possibility for all too many children caught in an environment of low-income, lowered expectations and lack of hope,” the pastoral letter reports.

Bishop Bransfield says that many “who shared in the listening sessions” knew “either from personal experience or experience with poor neighbors” how much “energy and attention is used up” by poor families “in merely managing to survive.”

Participants “knew of problems paying for gas, maintaining home heating in the winter, paying for healthful food, and finding adequate and affordable child care so that parents and guardians could go to work.”

There was recognition in the sessions that “the systems to help those in poverty could have unintended consequences.” The pastoral letter notes that “a veteran of working with the poor declared, ‘I can’t tell you how many times people say they won’t get a higher paying job because they’ll take away benefits like medical and child support.”

Listening-session participants spoke, for example, of the “soul-killing aspects of poverty”; its “scariness, especially for the elderly on a fixed income”; the “challenges in simply finding work in many areas” of the state; or the “bad choices made by many in poverty” regarding drugs, perhaps, or dropping out of school or “giving up on finding work as acts of despair.”

There was recognition, too, that many work hard and still are poor.

Christ Loved Children

Bishop Bransfield locates “the great motivator of our support of policies and practices which enhance the welfare of children in poverty” in “our union with the Christ who loved children; our devotion to the compassionate Mary, Mother of the Poor.”

He also mentions “our own moral commitments,” particularly “in relationship to the Gospel of life and its call to defend human life and foster lives of worth and dignity from conception to natural death.” The Gospel of life touches upon so many topics, from perinatal health, to Medicare and Medicaid, to criminal justice policy, to housing, to aid to senior citizens,” Bishop Bransfield says.

It is known, he points out, “that “poverty is correlated with risks for poorer health among children, including mental health.” He says, “Experts have also found correlations with risks of school failure, teen pregnancy and delinquency.”

Helping children “rise from poverty will take a wide variety of approaches,” the bishop observes. Extending compassionate care to them will require working “for policies” related both to health and education, for example.

Bishop Bransfield’s pastoral letter encourages “a live interest in education reform” in West Virginia. He also asks to be joined “in encouraging our state government and local boards of education to ensure that all children, especially poor children, obtain high-quality early childhood education and have access to intervention programs.”

A hope on the bishop’s part is that “the children of families living in poverty find a welcoming hand and supportive environment in our parishes and schools so that they may have the opportunity to escape the cycle of poverty and come to enjoy life abundantly.”

In witnessing the “plight of the poor,” Bishop Bransfield writes, “we are prompted by the love of Christ to see in those living in poverty our own neighbor truly in need of compassion and mercy.” He adds:

“May we be willing to reach out to them, and to welcome them, and to do our best to make parishes, schools and families places committed to active concern for the poor.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.