The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Labor Day statement, “Placing Work and Workers at the Center of Economic Life” declares that the cure to our current crisis is a “national economic renewal that places working people and their families at the center of economic life.”
It is precisely through the family that the Church may, according to Pope John Paul II, “fruitfully carry out her worldwide mission.”
Although employment figures have improved since 2009, and some have seen their financial standing increase significantly during that time, the crippling 8.1 percent unemployment rate is devastating to the middle class and the working poor.
Current economic policies need to be evaluated based on how they foster participation in the labor market and in the productive use of capital, as well as ensure distributive justice.
Foremost, economic policies should be assessed by how well they value or undermine the dignity of the human person. When profits are privatized and losses are socialized, when the bottom line becomes more important than those who participate in the economy, the consequences hit the poor the hardest.
When private and public interests — that is individual, businesses and governments — are not held accountable to the common good, they contribute to dispossession, that is, they diminish the chances of the poor to own the land, tools and other resources necessary for their families to flourish.
Economies of dispossession lead to dependence upon finance capital, austerity measures or bailouts to keep the heart of the economy pumping. But these band-aids cannot sustain themselves over long periods of time. An economy unaccountable to the common good will ultimately lead to economic bubbles and Great Depressions — which always devastate the poor first, and then the middle class.
Harmonizing capital, labor
The constant theme in the Church’s social teaching concerning the economy is the unequivocal call for harmony and brotherhood among capital and labor because their actions benefit or corrupt the general welfare of society. Capital needs labor to produce goods, and labor needs capital to earn a wage.
Wages should be sufficient for the laborer to provide for one’s family, own a little property and live a frugal life. Reducing workers to conditions of poverty deprives them of the fair return on their labor to which they are entitled, and this has detrimental consequences for their families.
Because the family is the cornerstone of society and directly contributes to the well-being of the broader community, the priorities of the business world and government should be secondary to the needs of the family.
‘Economy of participation’
One way families can flourish is to support the right of association among the working poor to secure fair wages and safe working conditions. This right of workers to form associations to defend themselves from exploitation is consistently upheld throughout Catholic social teaching.
Another is to encourage an economy of participation as a successful social model for society.
“The law, therefore, should favor ownership,” writes Pope Leo XIII, “and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” The worker-contract should be, according to Pope Pius XI in “Quadragesimo Anno,” “somewhat modified by a partnership-contract.”
More ownership, not less, is rarely explored today as an answer to poverty issues because we have accepted the separation of ownership and work as the gold standard of economic progress.
And, while profit-sharing approaches have been useful measures to lift people out of poverty in the past, a new civic economy enabling the working poor to access and control their own land, tools or other resources can help shift the wage-labor system into an economy of micro-enterprises and local worker-owned businesses.
Community participation perfectly illustrates how the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity and fraternity, as Pope Paul VI wrote, “infus[es] a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which [we] live.”
To empower the ordinary, that is, to enable the working poor to penetrate an inaccessible marketplace, will give them greater influence over their economic security and a greater sense of contribution to the social wealth.
What better way to place workers at the center of economic life than by encouraging economic participation? What better way to create jobs than by creating jobs of our own?
Richard Aleman is an outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Catholic Conference.