The Struggle Against Poverty: A Sign of Hope in our World

Wednesday, October 16 1996



Today, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, in the year of the same theme, the world community has highlighted the urgency of this task in a special way.1 We, the members of the Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs, invite people of good faith to reflect seriously on the causes and effects of poverty. Our invitation extends to those numerous persons, in social movements and political organizations, who are already struggling to end poverty. To Christian communities we also wish to suggest some avenues to explore in order to deepen our response to this challenge. The struggle to eradicate poverty constitutes, in our eyes, a sign of the times by which God calls us, as well as a sign of hope for our world.

On the day of our episcopal ordination, we made a commitment before the People of God to welcome with love and in the name of Our Lord the poor and the displaced of the world and all those in need.2 This important mission is furthered by the poor themselves, who through their cries for help, their hopes and their accomplishments remind us of God’s intention that the good things of the earth be shared by all humankind. It falls to everyone to ensure that all are accorded here and now their just share. That is the challenge that must be faced together. By collaborating with those who have been so sorely tested by poverty, Canadians can discover new, more equitable solutions. Who better than the poor to weigh the grave consequences of poverty? In them, our society can find an institute of higher learning, for those who have ears to hear.3


According to the United Nations, in spite of unprecedented economic growth in this century, material poverty remains a serious problem. In countries of the South, one person in three (in total about 1.3 billion people) lives in poverty, and more than 12.5 million children die each year from easily preventable diseases.4 Primary health care, basic education, safe drinking water and adequate nutrition are available to fewer than one billion human beings. The average income of the wealthiest 20 per cent in our world is 150 times greater than that of the poorest fifth.5

Poverty, which is a complex phenomenon and source of suffering, ultimately symbolizes marginalization. All that causes the marginalization and exclusion of persons, whether race, gender, ethnicity, geographic location, religion or employment, can place people in a situation of poverty. Material poverty is not necessarily a permanent situation, nor is it intrinsically negative. It is not a personal problem of certain “unworthy” individuals. Poverty is sometimes caused by environmental factors or by private or public corruption. Poverty may also be the result of illness, disability or simply the lack of personal initiative. Most often, however, poverty is the result of economic processes created and directed by humans. Viewed in this light, poverty appears as a phenomenon that we can influence. We can change such processes by making different societal choices.

Poverty in Canada

Canadians are faced with a deteriorating situation. At a time when the international community invites action toward the eradication of poverty, governments are pursuing three objectives: to cut social spending, to reduce deficits and to pay back our debts. But who raises their voice on behalf of the 4.8 million people (one of every six Canadians in 1994) living in poverty? Do Canadians realize the human cost of sustaining an overall national poverty rate of 16.6 per cent?6 There is no doubt: poverty must remain the top priority on the social policy agenda – and not only after the debt or other social ills have been addressed.

The existence of poverty in Canada seems contradictory to the fact that the country appears at the top of the United Nations Human Development Index.7 What is important to consider is that poverty strikes some Canadians harder than others – families headed by single-parent mothers and people living alone are more likely to be poor.8 Additionally, one study estimated that as many as one of every three Canadians will be poor sometime during their working lives.9 Our pastoral letter focuses on some of the groups that have been most deeply affected by poverty in the entire country: women, aboriginal people, displaced persons, children and young people in families.


The National Council of Welfare reports that the poverty rates for families led by single-parent mothers were incredibly high. The group with the highest poverty rate was single-parent mothers younger than 65 who have children under 18 years of age. Further, in all age groups the poverty rates for women were higher than the rates for men.10 These figures help explain why, in terms of gender equality, Canada’s rating has dropped.11 While no society treats its women as well as its men, Canadians cannot be complacent in the face of their country’s performance.

As the Bishops of Quebec have pointed out, solving the problem of poverty among women is the key to eliminating poverty in Canada.12 Yet, in almost every country, according to the Fourth World Conference on Women, women work longer hours than men. Over 68 per cent of the productive work of women -about $11 billion – is not tabulated in any system of national accounts. This huge amount represents the non-monetized, “invisible” work of women.13 Much of women’s unremunerated work has great societal value, since it involves caring for and educating the young, as well as preparing meals and maintaining the home. As long as the contribution of women to society is not truly appreciated, such inequality will not be overcome.

Aboriginal People

The treatment Canadians have accorded the Original Peoples of this land is one of the most painful experiences in our history. Whereas the Registered Indian population of 607 bands is only 2 per cent of Canada’s population, this group is young and growing at a rate twice that of the population in general. The infant mortality rate is double that of the Canadian population, the unemployment rate is almost triple, and income is less than half. Their life expectancy is almost a decade below that of the rest of the population while suicide rates are nearly triple.14 The situation of other groups of aboriginals is also markedly worse than that of the majority of Canadians.

The Christian Churches remain committed to working with the aboriginal people in their struggle to overcome the difficulties that still encumber many native communities – such as the loss of land and culture, development on aboriginal lands without their consent, as well as the challenges confronting the growing number of aboriginal people who move to urban areas.15

Uprooted Persons

Throughout the globe, one in 200 people is a refugee or displaced person. This represents a ninefold increase since 1970.16 There are now 19.5 million refugees and 30 million internally displaced people worldwide.17 The loss of human dignity endured by uprooted persons means that many have first-hand experience with profound poverty.

Canada has prided itself on being a country historically open to immigrants. Yet with our present system, it is much easier for a wealthy entrepreneur to enter the country than for others who are struggling to arrive as a means for their families to survive. Although immigrants and refugees bring great economic, social and cultural richness to Canada, they make incredible sacrifices to arrive and get established here. It is usually a long, hard struggle before they are accepted as full-fledged citizens.18 The difficulties in adaptation may help explain why the poverty rate for all families headed by immigrants was higher than the comparable rate for families headed by people born in Canada. Poverty levels are “relatively low” for immigrant families who have been established in Canada for a longer period, as opposed to new arrivals.19


Catholic social teaching in this century has staunchly defended the economic rights of families as absolutely necessary for the foundation of a just social order. If we want to support families into the third millennium, we must energetically continue to defend and safeguard these fundamental rights. The various rounds of cuts to social programs that are taking place at both the national and provincial levels across Canada impact directly on parents and therefore on their children. Escalating economic need forces both parents to work longer in order to satisfy their family’s basic needs. They then find themselves torn between their responsibilities as spouses, parents and educators and the increasingly onerous demands to be more profitable, more efficient and more productive in the workplace. Parents find it enormously difficult to balance their home and work responsibilities. It is also clear that the prevailing economic climate, particularly with the cuts to social programs, has been especially hard on women.

In 1994, the number of poor children was more than 1.3 million and the poverty rate was 19.1 per cent.20To think that almost one Canadian child in five lives in poverty in one of the richest societies in world history is nothing less than a damning indictment of the present socio-economic order. Children in single-parent families were four times more likely to be poor than those in dual-parent households. In spite of the fact that in 1989, elected representatives of the three federal parties unanimously adopted a resolution that committed them “to seek to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000,” four years later, child poverty increased by 55 per cent. The Churches have repeatedly called for concerted government action to face this challenge.

A recent report of an inter-church coalition did not mince its words: “In our society, if a parent denies a child food, clothing, and social security, it is considered child abuse, but when our government denies 1,362,000 children the same, it is simply balancing the budget.”22


Our pastoral reflection on poverty begins in the Old Testament, where the liberation from slavery of the people of Israel (Exodus 3:7-12) constituted a crucial religious and socio-political event. This liberation was the basis of the formation of the Chosen People, and became the defining element that revealed the God of the oppressed, the God of the impoverished. In response, the sign of the observance of the Covenant was an engaged care for the impoverished. As written in the book of Deuteronomy (15:4): “there shall be no poor among you.” Thus one understands the Israelites’ preoccupation with justice, almsgiving, and the passing of laws to make social solidarity a reality in their land. They saw the struggle to eradicate poverty as a sign of the presence of God and a cause of hope for a better world.

In solidarity with the impoverished, the prophets announced the demands of the Word of God in unequivocal terms (Jeremiah 22:3; Micah 3:1-5; Sirach 34:20-22). Anything that interfered with the proper relationship of the Chosen People with God (whether money, earthly power, or oppressive relationships) was seen to be an idol: a false god worthy of only the fiercest denunciation.

Our reflection reaches its pinnacle in the New Testament. In coming into this world, Jesus Himself chose a life of simplicity. Throughout His ministry, He identified Himself with the poor and marginalized of the day. Rather than suggesting that economic prosperity was a sign of God’s favour, Jesus was not afraid of cautioning His disciples against the danger of possessing riches.23 Jesus’ main activity was to preach the Good News to the poor (Luke 4:18; Matthew 11:5). With Jesus, “the Kingdom of God appears, first and foremost, as hope for those women and men who are socially marginalized . . . it is through them, through their lives, and through their hopes that the Nazarene speaks to everyone who is not rejected or excluded.”24 In this way, Jesus’ life illustrated “the preferential option for the poor.” Jesus goes so far as to say that whatever is done for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, is deemed as being done unto Him (Matthew 25:31ff).

For the first Christian communities, a tremendous value was placed on the communal sharing of earthly goods (Acts of the Apostles 2:44-45; 4:36-37). This was a concrete way of putting into practice the new commandment of Jesus: to love one another (1 John 3:17; James 2:5). St. Paul organized a collection for the poor of Jerusalem, and told the Corinthians that their participation would be a measure of the genuineness of their love (2 Corinthians 8:8).

This brief review of the Scriptures is a reminder to Christians that it is God’s will that our brothers and sisters be freed from oppression and from insult to their human dignity. And it is God who takes the first step in this liberation and who invites all to join this work. Liberation requires not only daily action on the part of individuals and groups, but also legislative action. The poor themselves are urged to rise up, stand tall and proceed united towards new horizons.


Today, more than ever, Christians are called upon to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, in the footsteps of Jesus, by performing an extremely delicate, often controversial, but nonetheless essential service: denouncing social sin that oppresses and impoverishes their bothers and sisters. We remain convinced that the proper emphasis should be placed on the eradication of structural injustice, one sure cause of poverty. Personal conversion and true repentance through the promotion and practice of social change, inspired by the Gospel, can further this goal.

As we approach a new millennium, it appears that the planet is becoming increasingly polarized into two distinct new groups: “service” workers and “knowledge” workers.25 Spurred by the often invisible forces of globalization, will the privileged minority of “knowledge workers” come to see their marginalized brothers and sisters as irrelevant or as obstacles to their future aspirations? Will an even more deprived social sector be created, consisting of persons totally excluded from the market and economic participation? The moral quality of economic growth can also be measured by how it is shared. The Church continues to express grave doubts and criticism whenever the neoliberal economic agenda heightens the polarization between rich and poor, or excludes the latter from their due benefits.

The main issue in the coming years will be how to distribute equitably the wealth of the world that has been created, as we maintain the ecological balance that should be the inheritance of all peoples. To meet this seemingly immense challenge, what is called for is a new global ethic in this era of globalization. It is no longer logical to blindly equate economic liberalism with social advancement.26 The current catastrophic state of the world eloquently shows what happens when neoliberal economic policies impoverish women and men. Instead, economic democratization, genuine redistributive reforms and the resulting strengthening of civil society should be the primary goals.


Over the course of many years, the Canadian Bishops have developed and proposed to the members of Christian communities a pastoral methodology for addressing social problems. These guidelines are rooted in the conviction that the People of God must commit to solidarity with the poor and their organizations in order to transform the world. The methodology also recognizes that poor people themselves, as part of their quest for respect and dignity, must take centre stage, organize themselves, and become the architects of authentic solutions to their plight. This pastoral methodology includes the following steps: being present with and listening to the poor; developing a critical analysis of the economic, political and social structures that cause poverty; making judgements in the light of Gospel principles; stimulating creative thought and action regarding alternative visions and models for social and economic development; and acting in solidarity with community-based movements.27

Given the current situation, Canadians need to be committed to a deep solidarity with the new victims of global economic restructuring: for example, the fishery workers and coal miners who watch their entire industries shut down; the industrial worker whose job is exported to a low wage zone; the office worker who is declared “redundant” because of new technology or government downsizing. By taking up the path of solidarity with the poor, we acknowledge their importance in the effort to create a new, more humane social order.

Solidarity with the Peoples of the South

Among the agents of social change are a number of international development organizations. The significant contribution of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) is worthy of note. Founded in 1967 by the Canadian Bishops, and devoted to public education as well as international solidarity, CCODP has established policies and programs with its partner organizations in the South aimed at combatting poverty and redistributing resources – in short, putting people first!28 Since CCODP and its partners count on the solidarity of Canadian donors and matching funds from the federal government, their goals are in jeopardy as the federal government reneges on its target levels of international development assistance. Canadian aid as a percentage of our GNP is actually projected to fall by 50 per cent between 1991 and 1998.

Beyond aid, however, is the urgent need to redesign the unequal structures of the international free market system. Pope John Paul II, in the spirit of the Book of Leviticus (25:8-12), has called for the substantial reduction, if not outright cancellation, of the $1.8 trillion international debt of poor countries as preparation for the Jubilee Year (2000).29 Ensuring that debt forgiveness will not spawn a new round of indebtedness or other disproportionate demands on the poor will require new attitudes and practices in public finance.

Fairer and even preferential trade practices for the countries of the South, controls and taxes on international speculative investment, ecological tax reforms, curtailment of military spending, corporate codes of conduct and other restraints designed to increase dignified employment while fostering the circulation of more benefits in local communities, are all among laudable and possible goals.30 In an important study of eleven countries where governments made policy choices to reduce poverty (especially of children), it was discovered that none of the successful countries had relied exclusively on the trickle-down benefits of growth or market forces as such. In every case, investment in human development such as education and health became governmental priorities.31

Solidarity with Our Fellow Canadians

Canada also has something to learn from these experiences. In order to take steps toward the eradication of poverty in our country, particularly among women, aboriginal people, displaced persons and families, we join our voices to those of many Canadians calling for alternative policies aimed at implementing fair tax reforms and ending corporate tax loopholes, creating dignified jobs, lowering interest rates, and preventing the gutting of social programs.32 There are many ways to fight family poverty and gender injustice: adopting new and fairer gender relations within the family, promoting increased sharing of home management activities, improving child support payments, instituting tax reform, and educating boys to the important responsibilities of fatherhood. We again join those people of good faith who call for a renewed commitment by governments and the population to place the fight against poverty through redistributive policies at the top of national priorities.

Pursuing the work of God in order to bring hope to our world, inspiration is to be found among the efforts of several groups: the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary in Canada; the anti-poverty activities of ecumenical coalitions such as PLURA; the indispensable work of community-based organizations and women’s groups, the economic development strategies of local and regional groups, and the co-op movement in work, production and services. We would like to stress, however, that the most effective anti-poverty remedy in Canada today is a good and steady job. In human as well as economic terms, Canadians can ill afford to allow the current damaging level of unemployment to become a permanent feature of their nation’s economic reality. Here lies a massive and unavoidable challenge for policy makers in governments, the private and non-profit sectors.

The Paths of Hope

What prompts us to write this letter is the urgent need to adopt the preferential option for the poor. The poor are our neighbours in every parish in Canada. If a civilization is to be based on love for one’s neighbour, the role of Christians is not simply to exhort, but to join in the struggle for social change, as well as to reflect and pray on current social issues and on our own social responsibilities. So that we might truly become a Church that serves the poor, all Christians must know how to recognize the poor today, further the liberating work of God, work for justice and take up the path of solidarity.

Again, we invite Christian communities to live intensely the social teaching of the Church on human work: to renew periodically our commitment to socially just personnel policies, compensation systems, affirmative action policies, as well as participatory decision-making structures. Where trade unions represent workers, there is less salary differential between women and men, wages are usually higher and working conditions better, than in non-unionized workplaces. We reaffirm our call to all members of the Christian community to support, strengthen, and revitalize the contributions of the labour movement directed towards the eradication of poverty.33

We continue to support Christians working with the impoverished in favour of just social change. We also encourage those in Christian communities who promote the social dimension of faith among their brothers and sisters, who work with community organizations, who help the various lobbying efforts aimed at government authorities, and who participate in fasting, prayer and public vigils as a sign of solidarity with the victims of poverty. Their efforts testify to the importance of community action as an integral part of the cultural and social change necessary to eliminate poverty. In spite of the difficulty of the situation and the seemingly small progress being made, we must derive continuing inspiration from the prophetic force of the witness of the Gospel, our source of hope for a better world. We can then meditate on the Beatitudes: “blessed are the poor: yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20), alongside “those who hunger and thirst for what is right: you shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).

Most Reverend François Thibodeau, CJM, Bishop of Edmundston, Chairman
Most Reverend Bertrand Blanchet, Archbishop of Rimouski
Most Reverend Nicola De Angelis, Auxiliary Bishop of Toronto
Most Reverend Marcel Gervais, Archbishop of Ottawa
Most Reverend Pierre Morissette, Bishop of Baie-Comeau
Most Reverend Peter Alfred Sutton, OMI, Archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas


1. December 21,1993. the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 1996 as the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty. The UN indicated it wished to foster “a greater awareness that the eradicationof poverty is fundamental to reinforcing peace and achieving sustainable development.” Later, at the World Summit for Social Development, held in Copenhagen. Denmark, in March 1995, the signatories of the final declaration (among them Canada) stated, “We commit ourselves to the goal of eradicating poverty in the world.”

2. Roman Pontifical, Ordination of a Bishop, International Commission on English in the Liturgy, 1978, Washington, DC. p. 226.

3. Most Reverend Jean-Guy Hamelin, Bishop of Rouyn-Noranda, “Les pauvres, une université de haut savoir dans notre société.” La Presse, January 7,1996, p. B2

4. United Nations Children’s Fund. The State of the World’s Children. 1996. p. 10.

5. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1992, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

6. The definition of poverty varies among regions. The poverty line typically refers to those Canadians who must spend 56.2% or more of their gross annual income on basic food, shelter and clothing. Significantly, Statistics Canada does not include data from the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Indian reserves, and institutions such as prisons, mental hospitals and homes for the elderly in their calculations. The National Council of Welfare, Poverty Profile 1994, Spring 1996, pp. 1 and 4.

7. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report, 1995 and 1996.

8. National Council of Welfare, 1996, p. 9.

9. Economic Council of Canada, The New Face of Poverty: Income Security Needs of Canadian Families, 1992.

10. The poverty rate for the relatively small number of families led by single-parent mothers under age 25 was an incredibly high 89.6%. National Council of Welfare, 1996, pp. 9,32 and 34.

11. United Nations Development Programme, 1995, p. 76. See also National Council of Welfare, 1996. Canada’s ranking dropped in these measurements partially because Canadian women’s incomes are so much less than men’s.

12. Assembly of Bishops of Quebec, Social Affairs Committee, “Let’s Eradicate Women’s Poverty,” Message on May1, 1995, no. 7.

13. United Nations Development Programme, 1995, pp. 88 and 97.

14. See: Canada, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. “Comparison of Social Conditions of Registered Indians to the General Canadian Population,” July 1995.

15. See: for example; “Let Justice Flow Like A Mighty River”, brief of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1995. Also, the Aboriginal Rights Coalition. “The Sacred Path: A Journey of Healing for Canadian Churches and Aboriginal People,” December 1995.

16. United Nations Development Programme, 1995, p. 13.

17. World Council of Churches’ Statement on Uprooted People, “A Moment to Choose: Risking To Be With Uprooted People”, Geneva, September 22, 1995.

18. Inter-Church Committee on Refugees, “Taking All Rights Seriously For All Groups In A Country,” Brief to the Government of Canada, February/March 1996, no. 3.

19. National Council of Welfare, 1996, p. 48.

20. National Council of Welfare, 1996, p. 10.

21. Letter to the Hon. Jean Chrétien from 12 national Church leaders (including Archbishop F.J. Spence. President, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops) concerning child poverty. November 20,1995.

22. Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice, Promises to Keep. Miles to Go: An Examination of Canada’s Record in the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty (1996), Toronto: Our Times, 1996, p. 23.

23. See, for example: Matthew 6:19; 24; 13:22; 19:24; Luke 6:24; 12:20; 16:22-23.

24. Assembly of Bishops of Quebec, Theology Committee, The Involvement of Christian Community Within Society. January 1992 (English edition 1995) p. 51.

25. Jeremy Rifkin. The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labour Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, New York: Tarcher-Putman, 1995; Peter F. Drucker, “The Age of Social Transformation” in The Atlantic Monthly. November 1994.

26. Groupe de théologie contextuelle québécoise, “Le néo-libéralisme triomphant”, L’Église canadienne, vol. 29. numéro 6, juin/juillet 1996; The Group of Lisbon. Limits to Competition. Cambridge. Mass.. MIT Press. 1995.

27. Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Ethical Choices and Political Challenges: Ethical Reflections on the Future of Canada’s Socio-Economic Order,” 1984, p. 2.

28. See Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, “Eradicating Unemployment and Poverty: A Political Choice,” April 1995.

29. Pope John Paul II. Tertio Millennio Adveniente. November 14,1994, no. 51.

30. See Inter-Church Coalition on Africa, Toward a Moral Economy, Toronto, 1996, pp. 69-72; David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World, West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1995, pp. 303-324.

31. United Nations Children’s Fund, Profiles in Success, New York, 1995.

32. See, for example: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and CHOICES, Alternative Federal Budget 1996, Ottawa, February 1996; Bob Goudzwaard and Harry de Lange, Beyond Poverty and Affluence: Towards a Canadian Economy of Care. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 127-151.

33. Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs, Supporting Labour Unions: A Christian Responsibility. May 1,1986, no. 10.