ONE OF THE MANY bright spots of the pope's visit to America - as well as his presence in the Vatican - is his insistence on talking about poverty. Last week, he reminded Congress that capitalism is a worthy system, as long as it helps benefit all. Francis is certainly not the first voice on the subject, but his actions and humility backing his sentiments has brought a new dimension to the subject; the pope has infused poverty and those who experience it with dignity that has long been lost in the divisive and bitter political dialogues that has emerged in the last decade - one that blames the victim while ignoring the underpinnings of an economy that bolsters only a select few.
Despite Francis' words, real change is going to require something closer to a miracle.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Census released its annual report on income and poverty in the United States. The bottom line: Poverty rates have remained steady over the previous year. But poverty is a complex and intractable issue, so a one-year snapshot doesn't necessarily illuminate long-term efforts or the changes they might bring.
The report does contain at least one bright spot: The number of people who are uninsured declined from 13.3 percent in 2013 to 10.4 percent in 2014, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. But the rest of the news, especially on income, is not great.
It's not just "the poor" that should worry. Almost every worker is being squeezed, as costs rise and wages remain flat. We're all working much harder for less. According to an Economic Policy Institute briefing released last year, worker productivity grew eight times faster than typical worker compensation between 1979 and 2013.
Also, almost all classes of workers have seen income stagnation. While it's a given that the lower the educational attainment, the more likely someone is in poverty, one troubling change revealed in the Census report is that those with bachelor's degree saw a rise in poverty from 4.4 percent to 5 percent.
Income trends have a walloping impact on all, not just the extreme poor. And too many of those who suffer are children; nearly a third of the country's children live in poverty.
In fact, increasingly, poverty is not a static category. Low and stagnating wages brings more families to the brink, more often. In fact, more than a third of all Americans experienced at least one spell of poverty lasting two or more months from 2009 to 2012. Keep in mind that the poverty rate is a classification; you may escape the official designation, but still struggle to make ends meet.
Philadelphia has its own problems with poverty and income, but also has its own good news . The city saw such a slight decline in poverty that can't be considered statistically significant - but it's a start. The city has organized itself around fighting poverty, not only with a robust group of nonprofits, but a city Office of Empowerment and Opportunity that attempts to harness the strength of their efforts. The new mayoral administration to begin in about three months should make sure the momentum that has been built isn't lost.
The free market alone won't fix poverty, nor will simple faith. The pope's simplest message on the matter is one we should all embrace:
Poverty is a scandal.