Can it do that?
BY Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Bruce and Nadine-Lynn Chong were quietly raising their three children on the Leeward Coast when the unthinkable happened. After working nearly his entire adult life as a mechanic, including five years with his most recent employer, Bruce became an early casualty of the recession in January 2009. He lost his job, and he couldn't find another one.
Even though Nadine-Lynn had a job at a nearby 7-Eleven and the family now qualified for state assistance, it wasn't enough. Their landlord evicted them.
The Chongs moved from working members of the middle class to the rolls of those living in poverty. In the process, through no fault of their own, they underscored a new reality that has alarmed state and national charities as well as social-service providers: The face of poverty is changing.
"It was a very trying experience, not only financially, but emotionally," Nadine-Lynn said. "For the kids. For us. It was very stressful not being able to make ends meet, having to make payment arrangements on my bills."
That's where Catholic Charities Hawai'i stepped in to help the Chongs, and many other Hawai'i families, as part of an ambitious nationwide effort by Catholic Charities USA to cut poverty in half by 2020.
The Catholic Charities initiative combines education with outreach, and comes at a time that some social welfare providers in Hawai'i view as the worst they have ever seen.
"We're trying to get people to broaden their understanding of poverty," said the Rev. Larry Snyder, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities USA during a recent trip to Honolulu. "It's the face of — more and more — of women and children, and of people now who were formerly middle class and who have lost their jobs, which means they have probably lost their house."
Catholic Charities USA, the national office for more than 1,700 local agencies and institutions nationwide, unveiled its Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America in 2007. The campaign seeks to educate policymakers and the public about the struggles of the nation's most vulnerable citizens.
It wants national and local lawmakers and government agencies to do three things: strengthen policies that support families; engage the people and families affected by those policies so that they can help create change; and collaborate with organizations across the country — including nonprofit groups, foundations and corporations — to address the problem.
"All of these people have a piece of the solution, and rather than all of us pursuing different solutions, if we all work together we could have a greater impact in one or two areas," Snyder said. "I think we need to look community by community, at not necessarily more resources, but using them in a wiser way."
The charitable organization has identified five areas that it wants to focus this collaborative effort on: Housing, health care, hunger/nutrition, education/job training and family economic stability.
But talk alone won't bring change, Snyder said. It will take something more personal.
"You have to interface with people living in poverty to get a different understanding of how frequently we don't have as much control over it as we would like to think," he said. "All it takes is one crisis in a person's life to push them to that level."
'SENSE OF FAIRNESS'
Catholic Charities has long focused on poverty issues. In a 2006 policy paper on the subject, one that would inspire the current campaign, the charity called poverty a "moral and social wound in the soul of our country."
Tolerance of poverty undermines democracy and not only violates the nation's "basic sense of fairness" but "diminishes our legitimacy as a beacon of political values," the paper concluded.
Poverty, defined by the federal government as income of less than $20,000 a year for a family of four, is on the rise, both nationally and in Hawai'i, according to 2008 data released in September by the U.S. Census Bureau. The national rate hit 13.2 percent, up 0.2 percentage point from the year before.
Hawai'i's poverty rate rose to 9.1 percent from 8 percent in 2007. That brought a total of 115,131 people into the ranks of the poor.
It's important to take this on, said Jerry Raukhorst, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Hawai'i.
"For people who don't have hope, it just is a very, very challenging situation," he said. "People who are affected today never thought they would be affected. You have people who worked 25 years and have always been able to provide for their family, and now all of a sudden have themselves without work and not knowing where they are going to turn."
Raukhorst believes reducing poverty by 50 percent is possible.
"I think the chances of success are pretty good, as long as we can do everything possible to ensure there is political will to make these changes happen," he said. "I think it's showing the facts, introducing the politician s to people who are impacted by these problems."
But Alex Santiago, the executive director of a consortium of nonprofit s that help the disadvantaged called PHOCUSED, believes lawmakers are not the ones who need persuading. He said it may be the public.
Time and again during this legislative session, as programs and budgets have been cut, Santiago has heard from lawmakers and their staffers that Hawai'i's people have changed, he said. Santiago, a former politician and state social worker, has been told his views — even amid this time of crisis — are out of touch with what services the public will pay for.
He doesn't accept that.
"I don't believe Hawai'i has changed to the point where we don't support whether children get fed or housed," he said. "But what I do believe is that people have become cynical of politicians and government leaders to deliver those services."
Nonetheless, services are being cut or eliminated, said Debbie Shimizu, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers Hawai'i Chapter.
"The amount of people who need help is growing, but the services are not going to be there — and I don't think the public gets it," she said. "It's scary. I don't know what is going to happen."
POWER OF HOPE
One of the solutions to poverty, according to Catholic Charities USA, is to involve individuals, because their participation will deepen their understanding of what is happening. Shimizu has faith in that idea.
"We are a very caring and giving state," she said. "If it is going to work anywhere, it is going to work here. These economic times call for us to do things in a different way. We have to look at every possible solution."
Snyder, who took the helm of the Virginia-based Catholic Charities USA in 2005, said the campaign to reduce poverty is gaining momentum. This year, the organization will hold 10 regional summits to discuss poverty in communities across the country, and Snyder said there is growing community will.
Part of the reason for the growing concern, however, stems from a recession that has lasted months longer than previous economic downturns, Snyder said.
"Poverty is now among us," he said. "It surrounds us. It's not just the people who live in run-down parts of town, it's our neighbors."
Snyder believes in the power of hope. It's at the core of his organization.
"If someone is walking with us, we have a better chance of getting there than if we go it alone," Snyder said.
That's what helped Bruce and Nadine-Lynn Chong. The Chongs stayed with relatives for four months, saving money as they enrolled in a Catholic Charities Hawai'i program that helps with housing and is also teaching them smarter ways to manage their money.
"Just to know there is hope out there is very important," said Nadine-Lynn, who told her husband she would stand beside him no matter what happened.
"We ran into a lot of arguments in our relationship," she said. "And as a man, I guess, for his ego it made him feel inadequate. I said, 'We are in this together.' "
As of last week, he was still looking for a job.