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EDITORIAL: A search for new ways to relieve poverty

Our unifying national feast day is about gratitude for our American abundance. But this year, Thanksgiving comes not long after news about the poverty that lives side by side with plenty - even here on Long Island.

On the surface, the Census Bureau's latest report on poverty levels looks favorable for the Island. Nationally, the level went up by a percentage point from 2008 to 2009, to 14.3 percent. By comparison, Long Island's steady 5.2 percent in both of those years looks almost rosy. But that's deceptive.

The federal poverty line, income of roughly $22,000 a year for a family of four, is faulty - especially in a region like ours. Families of four making two or even three times that amount can experience something very like poverty in this high-cost area.

To get at the reality, you have to look at such indicators as temporary assistance, food stamps and Medicaid - up sharply in both Nassau and Suffolk from 2008 to 2009. And you have to talk to organizations such as the Long Island Council of Churches, Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, parish-based outreach programs, and other faith-based and secular groups. They'll tell you of families that have never before had to seek help and now do - after the primary earner has lost a job in this still-shaky economy.

You'll also hear about the irrationality of some income eligibility rules for federal funding for the poor. Advocates say they're too rigid and don't do enough to keep the near-poor from falling one step deeper into actual poverty.

But there's also some hope in the struggle. In its 100 years, Catholic Charities USA, the nation's largest nongovernment social services provider, has assisted 1 billion people. Now it's doing something it had never done: proposing a federal law to change the way we deal with poverty.

It held 10 poverty reduction summits, listened and drafted legislation. The idea is that federal safety net programs are leaky, and local communities are better able than Washington to figure out how to help poor people help themselves.

The National Opportunity and Community Renewal Act, sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), sets up a competition to select 10 pilot communities to try new ways to help people free themselves of poverty. It would also seek more realistic measures than the $22,000 for a family of four. The bill could attract the support of legislators worried about poverty and those concerned about the cost and effectiveness of existing programs.

It's a study bill, which means it may take a while to gain passage, but it's an intelligent start to a conversation the nation must have. With yawning deficits, we have to spend more wisely, but still continue tenaciously to fight poverty.

Urging our legislators to think seriously about the Catholic Charities bill is one way we can all become involved in this long struggle. And what better time to get involved in that effort than at this festival of plenty? hN