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WASHINGTON LETTER Sep-5-2008 (920 words) Backgrounder. With logo posted Aug. 15 and photos posted Sept. 5. xxxn

Campaign '08: Economy seen as prominent factor in U.S. election

By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The economy will be a key factor in choosing a president this fall for Ithaca, N.Y., resident Kathryn Hughes and her husband, who are struggling financially to send two children to college and assist another daughter who is a single mother with three young children.

As a faithful parishioner of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Ithaca, the 43-year-old mother, grandmother and recently naturalized U.S. citizen has followed her pastor's call to exercise political responsibility in November's national elections, the first time she will cast a ballot in a presidential race.

"The economy has affected us in every way," said Hughes, a native of Great Britain who became a U.S. citizen in 2006. "We are the middle class and feel the pressure."

In her view, the economic policies of President George W. Bush have been helpful to the wealthy, and in some ways beneficial to the desperately poor, but have ignored the struggles of middle-class Americans.

For years Hughes felt blessed by the good fortune she and her husband found after immigrating to the U.S. in the 1990s. Both found decent-paying jobs and they were able to buy a home in a safe community, where they raised their three children.

However, as the economy soured in recent years and their children entered college, the couple discovered their incomes wouldn't pay the tuition bills, but they made too much money for government assistance.

"So now we and our children must throw ourselves into debt," Hughes said. "I also have had to bridge the gap for my daughter, a single mother of three children, because she is a low-income working mother with few benefits that don't add up to enough to put gas in her car to get back and forth to work."

In their 2007 document, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility," the U.S. Catholic bishops said, "We are called to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes, to help build a better world."

"The bishops urge Catholic voters to focus not on political questions such as 'Are you better off than you were two or four years ago?'" said Thomas Shellabarger, policy adviser for urban and economic issues in the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Rather, each of us should enter the voting booth focusing on the ethical and moral dimensions of public policies that affect the entire community."

The impact the economy is having on the family life of the Hughes clan and millions like them in the U.S. is a moral issue and a legitimate concern for voters, Shellabarger said.

"The Catholic Church recognizes the incredible busyness of family life and the demands of work that overwhelm families," he said. "Many pressing problems confronting family life are due to broad social forces, particularly economic strife. The decision of a man and woman to marry and raise a family is a significant one with many considerations involved. Yet today, without a job that pays a family wage, marriage and starting a family seem impossible."

Currently the minimum wage is $6.55 an hour or $13,624 a year, but for a family of two the poverty line is $13,167, and for a parent and two children, the poverty line is $16,079.

The annual income needed to pay for a national fair market rent for a studio apartment is $19,320, while $22,360 is needed for a one-bedroom and $26,520 is needed for a two-bedroom, according to a study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

"The study concludes, 'In no community in the U.S. today can someone who gets a full-time job at the minimum wage reasonably expect to find a modest rental unit he or she can afford,'" Shellabarger said. He noted that the study adds, "While planned increases in the minimum wage over the next two years may put affordable housing closer within reach for some households, they will not close the gap between full-time earnings at the federal minimum wage and the income needed to afford prevailing rents in most markets."

According to Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama's campaign Web site, if elected president he would double funding for after-school programs, expand the Family Medical Leave Act, provide low-income families with a refundable tax credit to help with their child-care expenses and encourage flexible work schedules.

On his campaign Web site, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain calls for a National Commission on Workplace Flexibility and Choice. This commission would be a bipartisan group of workers, small and large employers, labor representatives and academics that would give the president recommendations on how to modernize the country's labor laws and training programs to help workers better balance the demands of their jobs with family life.

The current state of the economy also has caused Hughes to limit the donations she regularly makes to organizations that help feed and provide clothes for the needy, a practice that is highly encouraged by Catholic teaching.

"Unfortunately, debates about poverty often become polarized by ideological and partisan divisions," said John Carr, executive director of the bishops' justice and peace department. "This political season, campaigns needs to move beyond false ideological choices that often paralyze national discussion. Catholic teaching and experience insist that reducing poverty will require personal responsibility and social responsibility, better choices and behaviors by individuals, and better policies and investments by government."


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