The following editorial appeared in the April 8 issue of the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

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Poverty is a complex issue, but it is not one of people simply being lazy, as we may often hear. Wage earners who are “downsized,” seniors who can’t afford critical medicine and families living on minimum wage are among those in poverty. A surprise illness or accident can be financially devastating, even for people used to living above the poverty line.

The U.S. bishops’ Poverty USA initiative explains that living at the poverty line can mean making choices between food and medicine, getting to work or paying a utility bill — choices no one ever wants to make.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey shows that 44 percent of our nation’s children now live in low-income families with income less than 200 percent of the poverty level, and 19.9 percent are at the poverty level.

Overall in 2013, 14.5 percent of the U.S. population had incomes below the poverty level — 45.3 million people. Though the number and rate for 2013 stayed virtually the same the last two years, the poverty rate increased the previous four years.

At a talk last year, Pope Francis said, “Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor.”

We can respond through charitable works and by confronting the structural dimension of problems and their solutions: Improving the education system, expanding access to affordable housing, participating in a living-wage campaign are examples.

The church teaches that how we organize our society — in economics and politics, in law and policy — impacts human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. Marriage and the family are the central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined or abandoned. People have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Decisions around the 2016 federal budget resolution should be measured against whether they protect human life and dignity, the poor and vulnerable and the common good, particularly workers and their families, stated two U.S. bishops in a letter earlier this year to every member of Congress.

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, wrote that as pastors, “We see every day the human consequences of budget choices. Our Catholic community defends the unborn, feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, educates the young, and cares for the sick, both at home and abroad. We help poor families rise above crushing poverty, resettle refugees fleeing conflict and persecution and reach out to communities devastated by wars, natural disasters and famines. In much of this work, we are partners with government, and our combined resources allow us to reach further and help more.”

Fighting poverty is something in which we must all engage, in whatever form is appropriate for our skills, our abilities, and our relationship with Jesus. Being fully informed of the complexity of poverty requires us to listen, not make assumptions.

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