Perhaps lost along the way is the fact that three different trends have converged this month to potentially whack the poor. A faltering economy, the end of welfare benefits for many people, and a charitable sector rocked by 9/11--any one of these factors in isolation could cause serious problems. And they're happening at the same time.
The U.S. economy has been in a recession since March, 2001. In November, U.S. unemployment rose to 5.7 percent, the highest rate in six years. Average unemployment for all of 2000 was 4.0 percent.
Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report stating that requests for emergency food and shelter assistance had risen dramatically in many American cities during the past year.
A survey of 27 major American cities found need for food assistance rose an average of 23 percent. And since housing prices continue to rise despite the weakening economy, the need for emergency shelter services rose an average of 13 percent during the past year.
"A lot of people are really hurting," said Rev. David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World. Beckmann said he has seen "an upsurge in demand for emergency help from churches."
For a particular group of the poor, things are about to get even worse.
For many people who hit the limit, states have a safety net in place to smooth the transition from federal to state welfare rolls. But for some that transition will not be so easy. The New York Times reported this week that more than 3,000 families in New York City have had their aid cut and are not able to transfer immediately into the temporary Safety Net program due to failure to submit applications on time, turning down job offers, or mistakes made by the city's human services departments.
Social service charities often help pick up the slack where the government leaves off, especially when more people are out of work. However, the charity sector itself is hurting. An Independent Sector survey found that 50% of Americans said they will give less to charity, as a result of the economic slowdown.
The 9/11 tragedy only exacerbates the problem. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in November that since September 11, giving to many other charities had slumped, affecting such organizations as a Salvation Army-funded food bank in Des Moines and Habitat for Humanity. The Independent Sector survey found while most Americans will continue their normal pattern of giving after September 11, 26% of people who gave to September 11-related funds will reduce the amount of their other giving.
"[September 11] is putting off all the attention from people we barely paid attention to anyway," said Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, director of Keren Mach'ar, the Fund for Tomorrow, an anti-poverty service and study organization for Jewish teenagers.
In a study after September 11 of how times of crisis and recessions affect charitable giving, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that giving to human services organizations increased in the face of either recession or a crisis. But when the country experienced both a recession and a crisis, giving slumped.
Berning said that his United Way chapter had not seen much of an increase in need for services and that this recession pales in comparison to the recessions of the early 80s and early 90s.
Yet for many, this recession is still very real. The mayors conference survey found that emergency resources available in many cities could not keep up with the increased demand. The survey found that resources, including food and volunteers, decreased in 42% of the cities. 85% of the cities responded that their emergency food assistance programs and facilities have had to decrease the amount of food they give or limit the number of times people can come to the facility for a meal.
As Xavier De Souza Briggs, an assistant professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, told the New York Times this week, "This is an unprecedented convergence of calamities. It's really a crisis."
Things may improve for America's poor. The pace of layoffs may be slowing. This week the U.S. government reported that the number of people filing jobless claims fell for the third consecutive week, to 384,000, down from 395,00 the previous week. And there are other indicators that the U.S. is beginning to pull out of the recession.
But the religious community is becoming increasingly focused on this issue. The National Council of Churches recently launched a program among its 36 member denominations to abolish poverty in the U.S.
Bread for the World, the faith-based hunger relief group, is organizing "Working from Poverty to Progress" to lobby Congress for changes in welfare reform. The organization is also spearheading an interfaith effort called "Hunger No More--Decisions 2002" to provide guides to the poverty- and hunger-related issues Congress will be debating in its new session.
To complete these projects, the NCC, Bread for the World, and other groups working to eliminate poverty will capitalize on a renewed concern for others that many Americans have sensed since September 11.
"Americans feel that September 11 was a moral tonic," said Beckmann. Now, many more feel that, "We ought to do the right thing for poor people."