WASHINGTON (CNS) — While poverty is one of society’s most intractable issues, methods have been found to chip away at some of the structures that keep poor Americans down.

Some of those strategies were explained at a Feb. 5 session at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington.

Barbara Budde, director of the social concerns office for the Diocese of Austin, Texas, noted how payday lenders have long preyed on workers who cannot save enough money from paycheck to paycheck to even open a bank account.


One parish in the diocese, Budde said, had both rich Catholics and poor Catholics. The Ladies of Charity at the parish gave financial planning seminars to help the poor break the cycle of poverty but were “totally frustrated” with their lack of success.

Everyone makes mistakes but “the people who benefit from them are the ones who are in power,” said a community organizer of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

However, unfazed by initial failure, parishioners, with the help of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Cooperation Texas, a nonprofit seeking to establish worker-owned cooperatives in the state, formed a credit union for the poor as a counter to the predatory lending tactics used on the poor. Those tactics, Budde said, are now being increasingly used by mainstream banks.

Another co-op to which Budde pointed with pride was a “green” housecleaning service run by the women who had cleaned houses for for-profit agencies for years. The motive wasn’t money, Budde said, although the women stand to clear more pay from the co-op model. “It was to be better moms,” she added. “Because they didn’t have to ask a boss for time off to take care of a sick kid.”

Maria Fitzsimmons, a coordinator for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Peace and Justice, touted faith-based organizing.

Everyone makes mistakes, she said, but “the people who benefit from them are the ones who are in power.”

Fitzsimmons said using a parish as a resource to build power is key. “We organize our resources and our people so we can have the resources to make change.” Too often, she added, “we allow our brothers and sisters to be disrespected.”

“Organizing is about power,” Fitzsimmons declared. In organizing, she said, it becomes a matter of “10, 50, 100, 1,000 people wanting to stand up and say to their elected representatives, ‘Each cut in food stamps is going to hurt hungry people. Enough is enough.'”

Organizing “is figuring out what you want and going out and making it happen,” she said. “That’s a good and holy thing.”

Warren Wright, a leader of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Columbus, Ohio, said he was galvanized by a presentation at last year’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering given by representatives of the Detroit Action Committee, an organization of the city’s homeless formed at two Capuchin soup kitchens in the city, and the accomplishments they had made.

He said it got him to thinking about the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s role in advocating for the poor. “Why are we doing this?” he said he asked of his fellow Vincentians. “Why are we the voice? Why are not they the voice?”

To that end, Wright said, St. Vincent de Paul submitted a grant proposal to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. “We went to organize in our food line” in Columbus and two smaller, outlying cities where the society has soup kitchens, he added.