Network social justice lobby unveils '21st Century Poverty' campaign

Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell thanks supporters of the Nuns on the Bus tour at a rally July 29, 2016, in Philadelphia. (CNS / CatholicPhilly.com / Sarah Webb)

Network, the sisters-led Catholic social justice lobby, launched its "21st Century Poverty" campaign on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14.

But don't count on the campaign lasting just for Lent, according to Network's grassroots mobilization manager, Meg Olson.

"This is something we've been thinking about for a long time," Olson told Catholic News Service. She said it can be "a different way to talk about the 'Mend the Gap' public policy campaign" Network unveiled in 2016. Olson said she expects this campaign to last for at least two years, possibly longer.

"Lent is just the beginning," she said, noting it could take "at least two years of challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. ... There were things that were constructed in the '30s, the '40s, the '50s, and also during the War on Poverty [in the 1960s], and how they're no longer serving our society."

Network's Nuns on the Bus road trips have provided its staffers a view of what poverty looks like that can't be seen by sitting at a desk in an office building a few blocks from the Capitol.

"When we're out on the road, when Simone's traveling or I'm traveling, the encounters that we have" put faces to the statistics, Olson said, referring to Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, Network's executive director.

"The beauty of the bus is allowing us to see the lived reality of what happens," Olson added. "Going on site to direct-service agencies or soup kitchens, we hear the stories, and it's very different from what you hear inside the Beltway. If only they knew."

One of the stories in Network's study guide to accompany the 21st Century Poverty campaign is someone Olson met when she was organizing the kickoff to the 2015 Nuns on the Bus tour, which started in St. Louis: Terry McCallister, who was, in her own words "stuck in the system" between disability, Medicare and Medicaid.

After she went on disability, she had to drop her COBRA insurance because it cost more than half of her disability check. The federal COBRA law that allows an individual and his or her immediate family members to stay on an employer-sponsored health plan under certain circumstances.

"I had a 401(k), so I was not eligible for Medicaid and had to wait two years for Medicare," McCallister said. Before that happened, however, she was hospitalized for three days. "Now I'm stuck with those hospital bills to pay on my disability income, and I'm drowning. I was $117 [a month] away from getting Medicare. [As a result] I did not have a doctor, I did not have access to medical prescriptions I needed."

McCallister added, "I'm not really sure what to do except make sure my government knows how many thousands are stuck in this."

The campaign will "look at the change of gender roles in the workplace, these antiquated views of who needs to be working, who has to work and who should be working," Olson said. "So much of our economy has shifted, too, in the last 50 years. This somewhat-emerging new gig economy of Uber, Lyft and Airbnb, it has changed to what does work look like, and contractors and workers. There are a whole new series of challenges."

Lent is a good time to promote the campaign, Olson said. "We have about 3,000 people across the country ... registered and receiving the emails" as of Feb. 16, she said.

Further, "we need to educate the lawmakers," Olson told CNS. "This campaign is really timely as we see Speaker [Paul] Ryan [R-Wisconsin] talking about work requirements and the Trump administration talking about work requirements for Medicaid, lifetime restrictions for Medicaid, work requirements for TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], that whole nonsense about food boxes replacing SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] for food benefits."

While Olson mentioned specific Republican politicians, "we need to educate our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle," she added. "People are not comfortable talking about poverty. We only hear about the middle class. So we are talking about doing some congressional briefings."

The same goes, Olson said, for Network's partners, "and make sure that we're using common language, people-centered language."

While "racism plays a role" in poverty, she noted, "oftentimes on the Hill, when we go in the [congressional] office, we see we have to tell the stories of white people living in poverty."

Explore our Resources Page to learn more about Catholic sisters around the world.