When it comes to politics, our society is often divided between those who emphasize personal responsibility and those who emphasize our social responsibilities. The former often focus on the cultural factors that tear families apart, while the latter highlight the economic threats faced by families. Within the Church these divisions are seen in the rivalry between two camps: pro-life Catholics and social justice Catholics.
But Catholic Social Teaching is not an either/or worldview. Catholics are called to value human life and human dignity, personal virtue and social justice, the dignity of work and the necessity of a social safety net. This approach, which is focused on the common good and the flourishing of all people, rejects the hyperindividualism and libertarianism of economic conservatism and social liberalism, instead providing a coherent, comprehensive framework that weaves together rights and responsibilities to promote the integral development of every person.
It is this both/and approach that offers the most promising way forward for addressing one of the most difficult, intractable problems our society faces today: the growing opportunity gap between the children of college-educated parents and those whose parents lack a college degree. Only by addressing both the cultural and economic factors, which are inherently linked, can we hope to break unjust cycles of poverty, reignite social mobility, and strengthen our families.
Pope Francis is calling on all people to reject a ‘throwaway culture’ in which some people are excluded and has harshly condemned an attitude of indifference. As Robert Putnam’s important new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, explains, both of these are a pressing problem in the United States. The reality is that we are living in the Second Gilded Age, where politics is dominated by economic elites, economic inequality is exploding, and the country is growing more divided.
Since the 1970s, income distribution has become more skewed; class segregation in housing, education, marriage, and other areas has increased; and we have witnessed the fraying of family and social bonds among the working class. Economically, real wages for the average worker have been stagnant, despite increased economic growth. Blue collar workers have been hit hardest by globalization, and the government’s response has been inadequate. Taxation has become less progressive, making investment in the common good more difficult. These and other economic pressures have intensified in the wake of the Great Recession. Culturally, two-thirds of all children in high-school educated homes are growing up with one or no parents. As more people move to get decent jobs, they are increasingly isolated from family and long-time friends. At the same time, we have seen a decrease in church attendance among working class people, removing another source of community and support.
This is happening at a time when there is a “parenting arms race,” as Putnam describes it. There is now a 7:1 ratio in terms of the enrichment time rich and poor kids have. The sense of shared responsibility and solidarity once expressed in describing “our kids” has been increasingly narrowed by individualism to the point where “our kids” now means “my kids.”
The result, as Putnam describes it, is that poor kids are isolated from everyone. Poor adolescents have few opportunities to learn from mistakes. They lack the networks often needed for social mobility. Putnam puts it bluntly: dumb rich kids are more likely to graduate college than smart poor kids. All of this can fuel a sense of alienation, nihilism, and despair. It makes a mockery of the American dream.
As Bishop Robert McElroy explained at a recent conference on this subject, “Our God does not believe this is acceptable.” This must be addressed at the interpersonal and structural levels. And the discussion must cut across our partisan, ideological, and religious lines.
It was therefore encouraging to see the President of the United States discussing this topic on a panel with the head of an important conservative think tank, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, at an event at Georgetown University (Overcoming Poverty: The Moral, Political, and Policy Imperative of AND). While this panel and the conference as a whole were very encouraging, what is really important is for sensible Republicans and Democrats to work together going forward to find common ground as they seek real solutions to these distressing problems. What is needed is not rhetorical bipartisanship, but a pragmatic commitment to addressing these issues and a willingness to set partisanship and ideological purity aside.
If we value work, we should have government policies in place that ensure a living wage. People should not work more than full-time and remain in poverty. A society that permits this is fundamentally unjust. It is clear that we need an increase in the minimum wage, something that millions of Republicans and even a few running for the presidency are willing to admit. But this is not enough. Increasing the earned income tax credit and child tax credit seem like effective, bipartisan steps that are feasible. If we value the importance of family (both because it is an intrinsic good and/or because of the social benefits), parents must have the economic security needed to spend time with their children. This is their right as persons, and it will benefit society.
Education reform offers no easy answers, but it remains absolutely essential. Too many kids fall behind, too many schools are not getting the job done, and partisan politics is standing in the way of real solutions. A few things are clear: we need universal pre-K. We need more equitable funding for education in general. We need a larger number of quality teachers and a way to justly and effectively get those who do not have what it takes out of the classroom and replace them with those who are competent. Those on the left must be open to new approaches and those on the right must be willing to spend more money on experimentation and things that work. Even then, there will still be disputes between the left, right, and center, but federalism may help in this regard, as different states and districts try new approaches. Another key step must be reversing the runaway costs of a college education. Too many students are accumulating unimaginable debt. We might look at other reforms, as well, such as utilizing our school facilities in off-hours to keep kids safe and give them a place to study. And we might think about alternatives to college, such as apprenticeships and vocational training, that will help prepare young people for jobs that pay a living wage.
This reform is in some sense part of the larger project of building a 21st century economy, though education’s benefits extend far beyond the economic sphere. The goal should be an economy that is sustainable and furthers integral human development. This demands economic growth, but not ordering all policies to maximize growth. Similarly, full employment is a smart goal, but we must create jobs that are compatible with human dignity and strengthen families. Investing in new technology and infrastructure is essential for promoting human flourishing and building an economy that serves all. Green policies will ensure that we have cleaner air and water and reverse trends in the degradation of the environment so that future generations will inherit the planet they deserve.
The biggest hole in the social safety net is access to quality, affordable childcare. The government must do more; it is that simple. With so many women in the workplace and so many children raised by single parents, we need to ensure that our nation’s children are receiving safe, quality care. This problem will not disappear even if we see a reversal in the number of single parents, brought about by a decrease in divorce rates and the number of children born out of wedlock. We are unlikely to see the rise of a family wage for most families in which one breadwinner works full-time and can support the entire family with his or her income. We need to adjust to this reality.
Poverty would be over double what it is today without existing anti-poverty measures. Ideological assaults on essential programs must end. Efforts to undermine food security must stop. Taking food assistance away from children because of their parents’ behavior is an incredibly inane, ineffective response. To drop programs that are working would only make the opportunity gap worse.
There is also a need for criminal justice reform that addresses mass incarceration without increasing crime or the rates of drug use. The current system reflects the throwaway culture, and it is failing to protect many in poor areas, who have a right to be free from fear and to raise their kids safely. We need measures to ensure just policing. In terms of crime, we need punishments that are reasonable, effective, and equally applied. We need to invest in people, including those who have committed crimes, to drive down long-term incarceration rates. We need adequate care for the mentally ill and treatment for those looking to escape addiction.
As Brad Wilcox has pointed out, we did not see the breakdown of the family that we are currently witnessing during the Great Depression. Economics matters, but it is not the only factor. Culture can follow economics, but movement also occurs in the opposite direction.
Some cultural shifts in the way we view family life have been positive. Some new norms surrounding fatherhood, the role of women, parenting, and relationships have strengthened the family and the common good. But there are some disturbing trends, as well, and their impact on the family is real.
The hyperindividualism of our era is the most disturbing trend. Intermediary institutions, so critical to civil society and the common good, are breaking down as people live increasingly atomized lives. Support networks for families are collapsing. People value autonomy over human dignity and solidarity. Moral relativism grows, as people imagine they can construct their own morality, a venture that is always bound to fail. The basic duties associated with families that flourish fall by the wayside, when things like monogamy are seen as mere preferences and certain sacrifices are not seen as responsibilities but options. Solidarity across class lines is minimal, as class segregation intensifies in many ways, creating the problems Putnam describes. Racial divisions increase when racial inequality and a culture of indifference persist and those with universal values fail to resist the status quo, ceding this responsibility to those who view racial divisions as permanent and inevitable.
The problem is not the immoral poor and the virtuous rich—individualism permeates our society, infecting all, and the individualism of the wealthy and powerful inflicts the most damage on everyone. Both the structure of society and our personal lives suffer as a result.
When it comes to strengthening marriage and the family, the Christian approach is somewhat counterintuitive. By not fixating on maximizing one’s personal interest in the narrowest sense—by rejecting materialism, consumerism, selfishness, treating others like a means to an ends—the family life can be strengthened. Real virtue (not bourgeois values) is the true foundation of human flourishing and strong relationships, including lasting marriages. One of the many benefits of these relationships rooted in love, joy, kindness, a sense of responsibility, and the other virtues will be greater opportunities to escape poverty, particularly when combined with sensible policies that address the structural causes of poverty.
We need people to reject individualism in their personal lives. But we also need to reject it as the foundation of our political life, replacing it with a personalist commitment to solidarity and the dignity and worth of all, along with a communitarian commitment to government that serves the common good and an economy that serves the human person. As Bishop McElroy has said, the existence of a permanent excluded underclass is incompatible with the best vision of our nation. It is incompatible with our highest ideals as a nation. It is incompatible with our faith. It is time to work together to seek pragmatic solutions to these difficult problems, so that we might break these cycles of poverty, increase social mobility, and build a society that reflects the dignity of all.