The poor need more urgent attention

All winter long, those of us serving the poor worried about heat. Would people have it? Would they be able to afford it? Would they have to choose between heat and other basic needs, such as food? The answer was "yes," they would have to choose.

Over the course of the first five months of 2008, Catholic Charities Greater Boston at the Yawkey Center in Dorchester has provided food assistance to 750 area residents in need each month. The volume of food requests has increased significantly over the past year and the community center is serving 25 new families each month.

There's something diabolical about an economy that forces a choice between staying warm in the winter and eating in the spring and summer months. And there's something disturbing about a conversation in which everyone talks about the economy, and no one talks about the basic needs of the poor.

A focus on long-term change and the middle class is critical, but everyone - public and private citizen alike - also must be committed to taking care of basic needs today. It is necessary to "teach a man to fish."

But especially when the odds are this heavily stacked against the poor and working poor, we have a vested interest in giving the man a fish, too. It is fundamental to respecting human dignity. It is a

basic part of our social safety net, and it is essential for maintaining a stable democratic order.

Our legislators in the Commonwealth have maintained a strong commitment to the poor and working poor over the years. They are to be commended. The poor and working poor often don't have strong voices, though, and when the state budget is under pressure, the loudest voices will get heard most clearly and most often.

Our national leaders are worried about votes, too. Their rhetoric focuses on the middle class, despite the fact that many who work as if they were middle class find themselves swelling the ranks of the poor.

Finally, the funding supply is getting leaner. Givers are taking care of the home front first, and seeking ever higher returns. Some who could give are not giving at all.

Call it charity. Call it a band-aid approach. Call it whatever you want. The measure of society in times like these is how we take care of our most vulnerable. Those of us serving the poor are still worried, but not half as worried as the poor themselves.

Tiziana C. Dearing is the president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.