Should the term ‘war on poverty’ be dropped?

Michael Gordon, warehouse and procurement manager for a furniture bank run by Caritas, an agency providing services to homeless people in Richmond, Va., is shown in January. The program is one of thousands started  during the last 50 years in the country's renewed push to end poverty. (CNS/Jay Paul)

Michael Gordon, warehouse and procurement manager for a furniture bank run by Caritas, an agency providing services to homeless people in Richmond, Va., is shown in January. The program is one of thousands started during the last 50 years in the country’s renewed push to end poverty. (CNS/Jay Paul)

This week’s National Poverty Summit got a lot of people thinking about the language used when referring to people living in poverty.

New language is needed to build broader support to help people and families on their path to build a stable life, many of the 120 attendees agreed.

But Steven Bresnahan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., did not want the discussion to stop there.

Near the end of the April 2 summit convened by Catholic Charities USA, Bresnahan asked the group if the term “war on poverty” was appropriate.

“Now think of the war in Vietnam, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq,” Bresnahan said deliberately and carefully.

“We’re taking a term at the time, when President (Lyndon) Johnson (in 1964) declared the ‘war on poverty,’ that was probably appropriate,” he continued. “But is that what we want to do to beat poverty? We want to overwhelm the hoards? We want to roll in with massive power? Think of all of those illustrations.”

Bresnahan afterward told Catholic News Service the same could be said about how social service workers are “fighting” poverty and working “on the front lines” and “in the trenches.”

The Catholic Charities executive didn’t expect an answer. He said was simply raising a question for people to consider.

“We’ve been talking about reframing and what language we use and it just struck me that the word ‘war’ implies that you settle something with violence and with having greater power,” Bresnahan explained. “If the other side doesn’t agree with you, part of the game of war is making them out to be evil so you can feel better.

“So that’s the language we’re using when we want to build relationships and bring about fundamental change in the country? It’s the wrong, wrong idea in my mind.”

Bresnahan had no immediate alternative. But he offered an idea from which a new image can be developed: the Marshall Plan under which Europe was rebuilt after World War II to ensure the peace, political stability and a healthy world economy. “We rebuilt Europe and we let Europe be themselves. So we walked with them, didn’t we?

“We need another word and I don’t know what it is.”

He then referenced Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) as a place to start.

“The war on poverty is an old term. It’s time to get a new one.”

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