Bishops’ Labor Day statement notes growing inequality

Every year, the U.S. bishops, through their Office of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, release a Labor Day statement that comments upon the state of the economy, and reminds Catholics and the public of the relevant principles to consider when responding to the challenges of the day.

Recent statements tend to underscore a few key themes, including:

  • The dignity of work and its importance in the sustenance and development of persons, whose needs should be at the center of our economic decisions, and who should not be treated as expendable commodities on the periphery;
  • The need for policymakers, businesses, and the associations of civil society to collaborate in job creation efforts that afford access to employment with just wages and fair benefits, promote economic initiative, and allow the creative forces in society to flourish;
  • The important role unions have played and can play in promoting just wages and protections for workers;
  • The preservation of a safety net for jobless workers, their families, and those incapable of work;
  • That economic life should be governed by a spirit of solidarity in which we treat our resources and wealth as gifts to be shared, as well as foster true participation in the productive dimension and the fruits of economic life.

Growing inequality

This year’s statement notes the growing economic inequality of U.S. citizens despite recent upturns in leading economic indicators. The economy still has not improved the standard of living for many people, especially for the poor and the working poor, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed.

A few notable statistics in the statement highlight this growing problem:

  • More than 4 million people have been jobless for more than six months, and that does not include the millions more who have simply lost hope and stopped looking for a job.
  • For every available job, there are often five unemployed and underemployed people actively vying for it. This jobs gap pushes wages down.
  • Half of the jobs in this country pay less than $27,000 per year.
  • More than 46 million people live in poverty, including 16 million children.

In Minnesota, more than 550,000 people enrolled in federal food stamp programs last year; almost two-thirds of the recipients are children, seniors, and the disabled. And, visits to Minnesota food shelves increased 166 percent between 2000 and 2012 — more than 3 million visits a year.

Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the social costs of widening economic inequality in the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.” There, he stated:

“The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone. . . . Through the systemic increase of social inequality

. . . not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of ‘social capital’ . . . indispensable for any form of civil coexistence” (No. 32).

Job creation as remedy

High unemployment and underemployment are connected to the rise in income inequality. And inequality hurts families and communities.

According to the bishops, “The only way to reduce the widening gap between the affluent and the poorest people in our nation is by creating quality jobs that provide a just compensation that enables workers to live in the dignity appropriate for themselves and their families.”

One major challenge for all social actors, including policymakers, is to stimulate job creation.

Heated ideological debates rage as to how one “grows the economy,” with “growth” or GDP themselves serving as an ideological system of measurement. Some claim that our state and nation can tax and spend themselves into prosperity by “investing” in education, infrastructure, health care and economic development projects. Others claim that the biggest impediment to growth and job creation is government itself.

The role of the Church in such debates is not so much in offering specific prescriptions (though certain opportunities may present themselves) as it is in transcending false dichotomies and putting a “new heart” into these conversations.

From the perspective of the Church’s social teaching, what is desperately needed is a complete re-orientation of economic life away from the obsessive focus on profits that leads to the manipulation and exploitation of workers; the use of “growth” and GDP as the prime measure of economic success; the dominance of an under-regulated financial sector; the cynical exploitation of consumerism and a decadent culture; and the use of the regulatory system to reward the monopolistic tendencies of powerful businesses, to punish others, or to thwart competition.

These are all themes that have been repeated by popes seeking to address the “new things” of modern economic and social life for well over a century. In many instances, these critiques are heeded by societies and prosperity is expanded — as was the case in the United States during the middle part of the 20th century, when a strong middle class emerged and economic inequality shrank.

But man’s heart often hardens to the call of conscience, and so structures of sin re-emerge as a society continuously moves away from the heart of the Creator and his plan.

It is necessary for the Church’s pastors to remind again both Catholics and society of what it means to put the person and the family at the center of economic life.

But it is also imperative for lay Catholics in all spheres to apply these principles in business decisions, worker enterprises, and educational efforts, as well as policymaking, in particular, which seeks to create new jobs and increase access to employment.

The next edition of this column will offer some further considerations of Catholic principles for combating economic inequality and fostering job creation.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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