Economists this week said the recession that has been the longest since the Great Depression ended last year. While the National Bureau of Economic Research cited evidence to prove the point – the economy declined from December 2007 to June 2009 until rising modestly since – it’s cold comfort for people struggling to provide for their families and themselves.

How many people? The U.S. Census Bureau last week produced a report showing 43.6 million Americans were living in poverty in 2009, up from 39.8 million in the previous year. Today anemic economic growth, high health care costs and uncertain employment mean hard times persist a year after the “end” of the recession. {{more}}

The social safety net that includes Medicaid, Medicare, the social security system, unemployment benefits (recently extended), food stamps and children’s health insurance didn’t exist 80 years ago. Then as now, however, private social agencies fill the gaps in the net.

Considering the range of human services offered and the number of people served, the Catholic Church must be considered the largest provider of social services in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Through its institutions, the Archdiocese provides long-term programs through professional staff and dedicated budgets to address needs such as housing and homeless services, juvenile justice and community-based services such as family counseling, rent assistance and vocational training to more than 162,000 people in 2009 through archdiocesan Catholic Social Services. Nutritional Development Services provided more than 10 million meals last year, and Catholic Health Care Services put its nearly 1,500 nursing, assisted living and independent living beds to work in more than 527,000 resident days.

These numbers compare to the extraordinary service provided in parishes of the Archdiocese, where some 67,000 parish staff and volunteers last year served more than 300,000 people in services including food distribution, programs for youths and active and homebound seniors, basic needs such as clothing and cash, addiction recovery and parish nursing, to name a few.

The people in this community are served by the Church regardless of their religion, place of origin or economic status. The outreach evident here occurs in varying degrees in Catholic dioceses throughout the United States and throughout the world every day. It happens because the needs exist acutely in hard times.

But more importantly, service is extended because our Lord Jesus has commanded it so: “Whatever you did for one of these least of mine, you did for me.”