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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Rob McCann: The beginnings of a prescription to ‘cure’ poverty

Rob McCann

Incredible advances in medicine and technology have allowed us to cure many of the world’s greatest illnesses and health challenges. Plagues and sicknesses that once wiped out entire cities have been eradicated or prevented by vaccines. Many illnesses that just 100 years ago were an automatic death sentence are now solved with just one prescription readily available at our corner drugstores.

But one great societal illness remains, and even surrounds us: poverty. Throughout my last 15 years at Catholic Charities Spokane, I have had a front-row seat to the growth and progression of the needs of the poor and vulnerable. Numbers of people served have gone up. Requests for assistance have gone up. Our response to those in need and the generous philanthropy of others have also gone up.

Thankfully, there is some solace in knowing that as poverty is upping its game, we are upping ours as well as a community.

But what if we could solve poverty? Write a prescription for it, provide the “cure” and mostly eradicate it like we have with things like polio and smallpox? That idea seems to be a pipe dream. But is it?

More and more in recent years, it has become very clear to me that poverty is, in many fundamental ways, a medical condition requiring a response that partners the best and brightest from the world of health care with our social services infrastructure.

The vast majority of the 77,000 different Catholic Charities clients that we see each year end up at our door because of an untreated or under-treated mental health or substance abuse issue. Many more lose their jobs and their ability to care for themselves due to serious illnesses, accidents, surgeries, etc.

Still more find themselves needing help from Catholic Charities not because one of these medical realities has impacted them, but rather because one of these medical conditions impacted their mother, father, brother or sister to an extent it pushed their entire family into the spiral and cycle of poverty, homelessness, hunger, isolation, fragility and uncertainty. Once in that spiral, more often than not, it also becomes an intergenerational trap.

If we could solve the medical issues that suck so many of our Catholic Charities clients into that cycle of instability, we would perhaps, in effect, be writing a prescription for at least some related elements of poverty. Sometimes the prescription needed is a social service intervention like housing. Other times the prescription needed is simply the stability offered by connecting the sick with somebody who cares to listen to their stories.

I have watched over recent years as some of the most powerful advances against poverty and toward poverty prevention in our community have been made not always by social service agencies like Catholic Charities but rather by medical services entities like Providence Health Care, which this past year provided $109 million in assistance to the community and support for research.

The sum exceeds the combined budgets of many local social service agencies.

We are starting to gain ground on poverty because more people are getting more care. Suddenly, I am happy to say that I believe a small shift has begun: the first of its kind that I have seen. This small shift is transformational and gives me the greatest hope for the future.

Perhaps we can write a prescription for poverty, and the first prescriptions are now being filled, thanks to our health care system. I continue to pray that those prescriptions keep being filled and that our Catholic Charities lobbies, waiting rooms and shelters slowly begin to be less filled as a result.

Robert J. McCann is the executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane.
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