ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The nation's 11th-largest charitable organization, Catholic Charities USA, increased emergency giving last year by 32% despite record-high employment rates and a soaring economy, its president said in a Dec. 19 press conference.

Jesuit Father Fred Kammer called the results of a 1999 report on the work of Catholic Charities “astonishing,” saying the numbers reflect a problem of “persistent poverty” and “the inadequacy of incomes in millions of U.S. families.”

Challenging Father Kammer's bleak assessment were advocates of welfare-to-work programs that were set into motion by Congress's1996 Welfare Reform Act.

While Father Kammer implored “a new president and a new Congress” to work toward reversing the trends he decried and to resolve to “end poverty as we know it,” welfare policy analysts voiced optimism over religious-based initiatives that have emerged since reform was initiated four years ago.

“All you need to do is look at the effect that welfare rolls have been cut in half. A lot of folks are saying it's the greatest thing that's ever happened to them and that they have gained a sense of self-respect,” said Brian Anderson, senior editor at the New York-based City Journal magazine. “Nobody said this was going to be easy, but certainly the consequences are good so far.”

Anderson, a Catholic, agreed that alleviating poverty is an important goal, but he thinks behavior, not the economy, is usually the root cause of poverty in America.

“There are still going to be people who are self-destructive,” he said. “If you look at the long-term poor in this country, in almost every case, it's someone who has screwed up their lives, somebody who has done something that has contributed to their situation.”

But Father Kammer said the Welfare Reform Act and the failure of Congress to raise the minimum wage this year have left America's lowest income earners unable to cover their basic needs.

Another key factor in the need for increased assistance, Father Kammer said, was housing. Five million U.S. families, he said, currently spend more than 50% of their total income on housing.

He called on president-elect George W. Bush and the new Congress to adjust the minimum wage to rise with the inflation rate and to make a major investment in low-income housing, a step he said hasn't been taken in over 20 years.

Tough Love

Missionary Sister of the Poor Connie Driscoll told the Register that when she started the now-famous St. Martin de Porres House of Hope in Chicago's Woodlawn area in 1983, she viewed the poor women who came to her for help with “the same rose-colored glasses as everyone else. We thought, ‘Oh, you poor women, you were abused by the system,’” she said.

“Within six weeks,” Sister Driscoll said, “we realized we had a real problem with accountability and responsibility.”

Sister Driscoll said her apostolate has housed over 11,000 women and children in the St. Martin de Porres House of Hope and claims a 94% success rate with them.

One of those women, Ollie Thomas, said that when she came to the home in 1993 she was drug dependent and on public assistance. Today, at 44, she is a senior at Chicago's Northwestern University and working as a substance abuse counselor.

“When I came here I found out that it was a myth that it's not possible to live without drugs,” Thomas said. “A lot of women are naive, they think that they have to stay on public aid.”

Sister Driscoll said that although she believes in “tough love,” she also sees that it's difficult in many cases for people coming off welfare to adapt well to society.

“We know there is a problem when people start right off welfare to the workforce,” she said. “They may need help with food and utilities.”

Nevertheless, Sister Driscoll said the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 didn't seem to have aggravated the problems she mentioned.

“I think the welfare reform is working wonderfully well,” she said. “We see people much happier, doing very, very well and taking care of their families,” she said.

Father Kammer counters that the numbers speak for themselves. Those who have benefited from an economic boom can be tone-deaf to the voices of those who lack skills and sophistication to swim in today's fast-paced market, he said.

Inundated by Requests

“Catholic Charities agencies are being inundated with requests for emergency assistance from individuals and families that would otherwise go hungry or homeless,” he said. “Or they cannot afford even the basics such as rent, food, heat, medicine or clothes.”

But even in those cases, the remedy isn't necessarily a boost in welfare handouts, others believe. John Walters heads a Washington, D.C.-based information-gathering organization for prospective philanthropists. Many organizations that had once been convinced of the benefits of welfare have started to acknowledge the successes of welfare reform, he said.

“Even the Ford Foundation, which was considered a pioneer in supporting the old welfare system is now looking at new ways to foster self-reliance, job-training and greater educational opportunities,” the president of the Philanthropy Roundtable said.

Walters said he was surprised by the numbers presented by Father Kammer at his Dec. 19 press conference.

“If this is to be taken at face value, it seems anomalous to say that there is a serious increase in emergency need,” Walters said. “And I don't hear from people who have been working with nonprofits that there has been a dramatic increase in need.”