Introduction: Illuminating the Reality of 21st Century Poverty

A note from Sister Simone Campbell, SSS

For more than 45 years, it has been NETWORK’s mission to mend the gaps in economic inequality, with particular focus to how these issues disproportionately affect women and people of color. More recently, we at NETWORK came to realize that there are a number of inaccurate perceptions and stereotypes about poverty rife in our political discourse.

Often we hear that people are living in poverty because they are lazy and don’t want to work. For example, in all his talk about poverty, Speaker Ryan says that we need to “incentivize work.” Too often, we hear that if people just “work hard and play by the rules” they will “get ahead.” Even the myth of the so-called “Welfare Queen” creates a narrative of gaming the system for financial gain. These misconceptions and stereotypes are light years away from reality.

Therefore, we believe that we need to educate ourselves about the current reality of just who is living in poverty and why. This is our journey. Opening up our minds and hearts to the current story of economic struggle is the challenge that we face. My own journey to awareness has led me to see the deeper reality of poverty in our midst.

I see the Latin American women who clean our office in the evening and hear that this is their second job. I meet Lyft drivers who have two or three jobs to get by. I meet working people who cannot afford rent and so they live in their cars. For all of these people the economic reality is driven by an economy that preferences those at the top and discounts the workers who serve in our society.

In this context, federal policy matters. Giving tax breaks to the wealthiest only exacerbates the income and wealth divide in our nation. Suppressing wages and not having living wage legislation keeps families in poverty. Lack of affordable housing in our urban areas pushes families out, etc. This is the work in which NETWORK is engaged.

So, I invite you on this journey. Let us open our minds and hearts to the reality of poverty in our nation. This begins first with self-reflection of our own preconceived notions and expands to political awareness. At the end, we will begin to know the truth of the struggles of our families living at the economic margins in society. Then when we hear some old stereotype from politicians (or even our friends) we can say to them: “Oh that is SO last century! Come join the 21st century and engage with us to mend the gaps and heal our nation…with the truth.”

Reflecting on the Myth of the “Welfare Queen.”

Senator Holly Mitchell, California State Senator, dismantles the myth of the “welfare queen.”

Facts and Figures
  • In 2016, the poverty rate was 12.7%, and 40.6 million people were living in poverty. 1
  • 3 million children under the age of 18 experienced poverty in 2016.1
  • 6 million people age 65 and older lived in poverty in 2016.1
  • In 2016, 21.4% of Black women, 22.8% of Native women, 18.7% of Latinx women, and 10.7% of Asian women experienced poverty, compared to 9.7% of white, non-Hispanic women. 2
  • Nearly 9 in 10 adults who are lifted above the poverty line by safety net programs do not have a college degree.3
  • White people without a college degree are the largest group of working-age adults lifted above the poverty line by safety net programs.3
Words of Wisdom
There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.

-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.

-Dorothy Day

We Pray

God, please bless us on this journey to uncover the truth.

Grant us the courage to question our own preconceived notions.

Grant us the compassion to listen to people struggling at the margins.

Grant us the curiosity to engage in conversations within our community.

Grant us hope and vision of a future without economic disparity.

Grant us commitment to continue our work for justice.

We long for a future where gaps are mended and all live in solidarity.


Reflection Questions
  • How has your story – and the story of your family – shaped your view on poverty and success in the United States?
  • When was the last time you had a conversation with someone who might be experiencing poverty? What was your response?
  • In this divided time, how is God calling you to contribute to mending the gaps in economic inequality?


1. U.S. Census Bureau. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016. September 2017,

2. National Women’s Law Center. National Snapshot: Poverty Among Women & Families, 2016. September 2017,

3. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Poverty Reduction Programs Help Adults Lacking College Degrees the Most. February 2017.