Family and poverty, economic and relational aspects.

Michel Roy

“Our world is under strain”. This is what the former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon wrote in Jeffrey Sachs book The age of sustainable development: “Poverty continues to plague communities and families. Climate change threatens livelihoods. Conflicts are raging. Inequalities are deepening. These crises will only worsen unless we change course”. This message, today, is more pressing than ever. Pope Francis expressed the same message in the Laudato Si’ with other words.

In a global society that every day is more advanced and interconnected, where technologies, institutions and culture have reached very high goals and where capitals, goods, ideas and persons, not migrants nor asylum seekers, cross the borders with an unprecedented speed and intensity, how is it possible that we can’t eradicate poverty? It must be a main question in our today’s reflection on family.

In order to give a positive answer, the global leaders committed themselves to create a new development Agenda that allows to reach, during the next years, a series of specific global goals for sustainable development. We, as Caritas, participate in the annual meeting of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) of the United Nations in NY which monitors the progress that has been made, based on a contribution of a group of states and on the evaluation of the implementation of some Sustainable Development Goals. We do understand that we are not progressing as we should, and there is no more time to lose.

The world is indeed under strain, suspended between opportunities and new risks. We can consider, for example, the effects of climate change, due to an unbridled exploitation of the resources of Mother Earth and to a wrong development model.

But if the world is under strain, so is family, caught up in an economic, social and spiritual crisis from which it tries to free itself. When the crisis hit hard and the banks and businesses went bankrupt in the Western world, leaving a lot of people unemployed and without savings, families functioned mostly everywhere as a buffer, avoiding the worst for those who, father mother or son, were hit by the recession. They have been like a “field hospital”, to use an expression that Pope Francis likes. A space where the wounds produced by the crisis are relieved, as well as the cultural and relational ones. But the families didn’t get away unscathed from the pressure exerted on them. Because as we know, economic poverty and social exclusion increase the existential malaise and put a strain on relations; they make the persons vulnerable and they create a spiral that ends up affecting all personal and social life. When the family crumbles and the family network breaks, poverty increases and it becomes even more dramatic with the presence of children. When the social policies support and protect the rights and the duties of the family, and the networks of mutual aid and voluntary work function, the families are able to face the change. But if these elements lack or are weak, the family unit breaks and it destabilises an entire society.

In the West, the increasing materialism, consumerism and individualism weaken family bonds and solidarity between the generations. This is happening everywhere with this type of globalisation.

In Latin America there is an expression that says that we must look with the eyes of the poor. This is the objective of all the persons involved in Caritas and in society, and also in the Caritas’ Poverty Observatories.

In the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty of 2018, in the Report Povertà in attesa (Poverty on hold), the Italian Caritas has pointed out that the number of absolute poor persons, those who can’t reach a dignified standard of living, keeps increasing (from 4 million and 700 thousand in 2016 to 5 million and 58 thousand in 2017), despite the signs of recovery on the economic front and the employment one. The report says that since the years before the crisis until today the number of poor persons has increased by 182%, a data that gives an idea of the twisting that has taken place because of the economic recession. In the data on poverty, the disadvantage of the households with foreign members as compared to the exclusively Italian families is evident. This disadvantage, which is not something new, increased in 2017. Among Italians, one in twenty families is poor; among foreigners, one in three families is poor.

The stories of poverty detected by the Listening Centres are increasingly complex, chronic and multidimensional: the rate, which is quite high, of those who have been living in a situation of fragility during more than 5 years is growing. This is the discomfort that becomes chronic and draws people to feel increasingly excluded, impotent and isolated by the rest of the community.

Now I would like to focus on two important aspects of the poverty of the families: the poverty of minors and educative poverty. It is no coincidence that last year, Caritas Europa dedicated a study to educative poverty. Education, as it says in the title, is the key to breaking the vicious circle of poverty.

I was impressed by the data recorded by the Caritas of the United States, Catholic Charities USA. Although the country experiments a growth in economy and employment, Caritas points out that poverty is growing. The data regarding minors is alarming: more than 21% of children (15.3 million) lives in situations of poverty - that is 1 in 5 children, more than 15% of the families has difficulty getting enough food. The children of these families can eat only in school canteens. The same thing happens in many countries, as shown by the data of WFP, which supplies the meals in many schools of the world.

The data on childhood are a key indicator to measure the level of humanity of a society.

For this reason, it is so important to observe what happens to the minors and to young people in nowadays families. Especially in the West, poverty increases with the reduction of age, thus converting the minors and the young persons into the most disadvantaged category. In Italy, minors are 1 million and 200 thousand, 12% of the total amount of persons who live in absolute poverty and the young persons aged 18-34 are 10,4%: today, almost one in two poor persons is a minor or a young person.

In Europe in general, the Eurostat data highlight that around 25 million children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and the rate has grown ever since 2007, first year of the global financial crisis. The structure of the families is a risk factor, surely higher in the households with only one parent or that include three or more dependent minors.

The situation of children is even more complex in the families that live in the suburban, poor and precarious contexts or in areas of the world where children are exposed to the violence of the war, to the precarious life in the refugee camps, to forced migrations. Their life and peace are put at risk every day by urban violence, mafias, and by Central America “maras”. Various children in different areas of the world were not even registered at birth and are, therefore, an easy prey for exploitation. Children see and experiment situations of fear and violence; they are witnesses, frequently silent ones, of dramatic events in families, communities, cities, countries in conflict.

Not acting today on the conditions that affect the children and their families is the same as mortgaging the future of an entire generation. Because between material poverty and educative poverty there’s a vicious circle that feeds itself in the two directions. Being materially poor increases the risk of being poor from the educative point of view and vice versa. And by educative poverty I mean the lack of opportunity to learn, experiment and carry out cultural, sports-related and social activities. Being born in a disadvantaged family frequently isn't a temporary condition, but it can affect an entire life. And if one is born in a disadvantaged territory or in an area of conflict or precariousness, the disadvantage increases. The children born today in disadvantaged familiar and social situations are at risk of becoming tomorrow's excluded persons. The increase in school drop-out is striking. Every year, the Italian school loses 135 thousand students, who abandon their studies between the first and the second cycle. In various countries of the world the informal networks for school aid for education to peace, created by many ecclesial and non-ecclesial realities, allow children not to lose the opportunity to get an education and build a better future.

Precisely because the risk of material poverty is just around the corner, the international community has made education a key goal of sustainable development and has united this commitment with another one against youth unemployment. For the first time in history, young persons can’t find a job and can’t obtain a permanent job. Their parents lose their jobs as well and the life of the families becomes precarious for two generations aged 20 and 50. Life is increasingly poised between atypical work and unemployment, with uncertain incomes and no possibility for the young persons to build a future.

By observing this reality of the minors, today we can say that the poverty of the minors and educative poverty are two of the biggest emergencies of families. The fact of facing poverty and inequality of childhood is crucial to grant to children equal opportunities for life, learning and relation, so that they can develop their own abilities and, in case they become parents, the can avoid having their children living in conditions of poverty. We must support children and youth with big public and private investments in education, in the transition from school to work and in social policies to support the families.

The ecclesial communities of the Caritas are called as well, at every level and every day, to carry out this fundamental task and they commit to fulfil it. They are called to help the families to create a network, to support one another, to help the communities to create growth spaces for the children and to help the parents in their search for a job.

Maybe, to humanise this society of ours and to create a civilisation based on living well together, we must start again from the children and the young persons. We must invest time, energies, enthusiasm to build the future with them. We must invest especially in education. A Chinese pearl of wisdom says: “If your plan is for one year plant rice. If your plan is for ten years plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years educate children.”

Families themselves are a school of hope and solidarity and, starting from their daily experience of love, we can build a fairer and more human world.