Is it right that people work hard to provide for their families in jobs that are essential to our modern way of life but nevertheless remain on the edge of poverty? Is it morally acceptable to leave families so vulnerable, exposed to calamity if faced with a minor mishap? It is neither right nor acceptable. The status quo has got to change. But for this to happen, we must change our culture’s priorities by committing to the common good, defending the dignity of workers and the well-being of their families, and exercising a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.
OxFam America and the Bread for the World Policy Institute recently hosted a panel of faith leaders to discuss how we can build such a culture. Under discussion was how the American economy can ensure just wages and the dignity of work for American families. Panelists spoke of how the dignity of work can be advanced through our advocacy of the common good.
Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, explained how working in Washington for close to thirty years revealed to him how the government has operated to benefit only the few. Knowing that the people running the current system won’t make the changes needed, Cizik encouraged a “righteous outrage.” We need this righteous outrage to spur the change we need.
John Carr, the director of the The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, spoke about America’s culture of extreme individualism and how it leaves no room for the pursuit of the common good. Some of the changes we need are cultural—replacing this extreme individualism with a concern for the well-being of others.
The “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra of Americans, a phrase often used in arguments against government-funded programs that help to ensure people have their most basic needs met (such as healthcare, through programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act), is the exact opposite of what we as Christians are called to believe. And, of course, it doesn’t make a lot of sense when some people can’t even afford boots.
Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has shown us how to care for the poor and advocate for the dignity of each person. Francis has said, “Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities.”
The unfair economic structure of our society is clear in the culture of indifference that arises from underregulated capitalism and inattentive government. It is leaving people behind and harming our country’s families, denying them the stability that is critical to family life.
In 2013, over half of the people who visited food banks in the Feeding America Network lived in households where at least one person was working. Americans can’t provide for their families on the current minimum wage. And they aren’t receiving enough support from elsewhere to make ends meet. We need government to step up and protect workers. We need businesses to step up and provide a living wage, which is their God-given responsibility.
We, as faithful citizens, must be the ones pressing for change. One of the first steps we can take in providing dignified work for all people is raising the minimum wage. But it can’t stop there. We must be fight to strengthen American families by providing them with the stability and security that they deserve. Respecting the dignity of the person and the dignity of work means valuing each and every person and allowing them to contribute to the common good while providing for their families.
Jes Stevens is a Loretto Volunteer working for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good in Washington D.C.