Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Faces Of Poor Seen In Every Stage Of Life

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 17, 2007

Catholic Charities USA points out that in the world’s richest country about 37 million people live below the federal poverty line of $20,000 a year for a family of four.

At the St. Vincent de Paul Society Spring to Life Conference, church leaders spoke on specific aspects of poverty to Society volunteers to encourage them in their ministry.

Father Ed Branch, Catholic chaplain at the Atlanta University Center, spoke on the elusive but real problem of college student homelessness; Father Richard Wise, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church, Blairsville, spoke on rural poverty; Father Roy Lee spoke of the challenges for middle school African-American boys to excel in school; and Betti Knott, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee and past SVDP executive director, spoke on the unseen problem of poverty for Georgia’s children.

Knott helped volunteers understand what drives many families living paycheck to paycheck to their parish SVDP conferences for help, as she reported that Atlanta has the highest percentage of child poverty in the United States.

“The city of Atlanta is number one—48.1 percent of children in Atlanta are living below that mysterious poverty threshold that Mollie Orshansky came up with in 1966,” reported Knott. “Most of these are children of working poor people, not welfare families.”

Poverty leads to economic segregation, she said, while noting that that this type of segregation cuts across racial lines.

“Our poor people are isolated from us,” she said. “They are isolated from us physically … economically and … spiritually.”

She stressed the importance of education, noting that if a single mother with two children works full-time at a minimum wage job she earns $10,712 before taxes, while the poverty line for a family of three is about $17,100, and what she’d actually need to cover all basic expenses like food and rent is about $24,000.

“I do believe education is the key across the board to raise people up and empower them to take control of their lives. They’ve got to have that basis, and if they don’t have that basis they can’t do it,” Knott said.

Father Lee spoke on the topic of African-American middle school boys, his education dissertation project after five years of research in Atlanta. “Middle school is a rite of passage, where we lose them or where we keep them.”

In the past inner-city blacks had Catholic schools to help lift them out of poverty, but now there are many fewer Catholic schools in the inner city in part because of the declining numbers of Religious, and they are becoming less affordable.

One basic problem with inner city public schools is insufficient resources and teachers who often don’t have experience in the discipline they are teaching or know the culture. And the majority of teachers at this level are female and “limitations are placed on trying to understand boys, specifically African-American boys.”

“Education institutions tend to nurture females more than males. Many African-American males feel isolated in the system and therefore are labeled as at-risk or put in the category of slow learner, and it’s a discouraging experience.”

He said that while many communities have churches, they lack needed after school programs to help youth perform better academically.

“Once we give children a good foundation of education they have a good foundation for what they need to be successful in life. I think what’s really important too as we talk about family structure is the place of the church. I think that the church really has to step up to the plate to do its part to try to reposition children who are being influenced very much by the secular things of the world.”

For those who do graduate and attend college, Father Branch spoke of his concern about student homelessness, particularly at schools where many students come from families with limited resources, where they may live out of cars or “go from friend to friend.” He spoke of two students he has known in the past year in this situation. Students may need to take fewer classes and work more, but staying another year in school creates additional expenses. The campus chaplain believes that “students without residence are present in significant numbers” although there is no study yet to provide any statistics, and they hide their status from the universities.

“Most homeless students consider homelessness worth putting up with in order to earn a degree because it’s one surefire ticket out of poverty,” Father Branch said.

“It’s the cost of residence versus the cost of eating and tuition,” he added. “As tuition rises, the number of homeless students rises.”

Father Wise, the first in his family along with his siblings to attend college, has found that many who are poor in the Blairsville and Union County rural region come from poor families and “are predominantly uneducated people without much in the way of prospects.” In Union Country, 3,156 live in poverty but the number is decreasing as the area attracts more retirees.

He said the Society plays an important role in helping people struggling to break out of a family history of generational poverty.

“It’s by what you do, taking people under your wing, helping them through. It’s by modeling successful living not so much by what you make but by how you live,” he said.

“For me it’s a real privilege to be here because you are the folks on the front lines. You are the folks visiting homes, who have given a good portion of your life addressing issues of poverty. I look out on you folks who go and visit and do the grunt work of addressing poverty, and to me that’s a real privilege.”

For information visit To volunteer, contact Susan Butler Allison, director of programs, at (770) 576-4077 or