The National Catholic Review
Justice begins with economic security.

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a two-part series. We asked two prominent members of Congress, both Catholics with famous names, to respond to Pope Francis’ repeated calls to empower the poor. The first response, by Congressman Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, appeared on Oct. 13.

There was not much on the stretch of highway between Llanos de Perez and Imbert in the Dominican Republic: a few wooden shacks with tin roofs, a couple of fruit stands, a small crowd gathered by the local lottery kiosk or watering hole. It was a poor but tight-knit community. Stalks of sugar cane swayed in the breeze and rolled on for what seemed like forever. Behind, a series of foothills rose up, and Rio Damajagua weaved between them. 

By the time I arrived there as a young Peace Corps volunteer, tour companies from the North Coast had discovered Rio Damajagua and its stunning waterfalls, running together like Mother Nature’s perfect water park. They had set up shop, busing in tens of thousands of tourists a year and charging them up to $100 to climb the falls. The locals served as guides, escorting the tourists up and down the river, sometimes carrying them on their backs. For that grueling work, the companies guaranteed them only a few dollars per trip. 

Economic instability was constant, electricity intermittent, schools haphazard, illness frequent. Try as they might, families struggled daily to put food on the table. But their poverty was not by choice or even chance; it was the result of a system that had left them powerless. Corporate interests operated with impunity, government turned a blind eye, and workers were denied the simple dignity of providing for their families.

Over the next two years, I worked with the community to regain a stake in its future. We convinced the government to put the park under local control, allowing the community to set wages and craft safety precautions. We raised money and built a small business to run the park operations with more local autonomy. We set up a community reinvestment fund so that a portion of every entrance fee went into the local neighborhood—to build a bridge, buy a school bus, bring clean water to the community.

Change did not happen overnight. The effort is very much ongoing to this day. But as the weeks and months passed, there was a shift in those men I will never forget. It was not just the energy they felt at the prospect of being able to provide for their families. It was the way they actually held their heads higher. That pride rippled through the community, empowering people who had never had much reason to believe that their hard work might pay off. 

It is the lesson of fundamental human dignity that lies at the very heart of our Catholic faith. Throughout the Gospel, we are called on to acknowledge the humanity of those who are suffering, impoverished or oppressed. Matthew summons us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and comfort the afflicted. Luke tells us of the good Samaritan’s gentle mercy, kneeling beside his bleeding neighbor on the road to Jericho while others simply passed by.

In the Catholic tradition, these stories elevate calls for charity and compassion into calls for justice. They echo the same self-evident truth on which our founding fathers staked life and liberty: all men are created equal. Whether in church or state, this country has been anchored by the belief that the same spark of human dignity resides in all of us, that there is inherent value and untold potential in each person. 

Today our commitment to human dignity is being tested, threatened by the growing number of people in this country unable to afford or access the most basic of human necessities: a roof, a meal and a paycheck. The data has become a drumbeat we cannot ignore. Forty-nine million Americans do not know if there will be food on their table next week. Three million workers have been out of a job for more than six months, 1.6 million children will experience homelessness in the next year and one in three American women lives in poverty or on the brink of it.

These numbers have left us searching for something to blame or explain them away, and the loudest voices have arrived at a resounding conclusion: Poverty is bred of individual inadequacy and government dependency. If he worked harder, he would not need food stamps. If she had made better choices, she would not need affordable housing. And if government had not stepped in to offer these things, he or she would have figured out how to eliminate need.

While this antigovernment rhetoric might make for colorful talk radio, it ignores a fact proven by history, economics and human experience time and again. Poverty is rarely a consequence of individual choice; the families who turn to food stamps to keep dinner on the table after a lost job are not trying to get a free pass. Rather, poverty is the product of an economic infrastructure that builds heavy ceilings above the weak and vulnerable instead of sturdy floors beneath their feet. 

It is a great legacy of the Catholic Church and Jesuit tradition that communities of the faithful gather every day, around the world, to bless and to serve the poor, the meek, the mourning, the hungry and the persecuted. But “charity is no substitute for justice withheld,” St. Augustine reminds us. The “economy of exclusion,” aptly named by Pope Francis, will require more than individual acts of service to include those left out. It will require a collective effort to reverse decades of policy choices that have stacked the deck against the poorest among us.

How Did We Get Here?

As technology and globalization revolutionize our world and expand opportunity across the globe, U.S. workers face competition from countries that did not see much playing time a generation ago. Technological advances expedited the production of consumer goods but simultaneously hollowed out a once-robust pipeline of middle-class jobs. As the American middle class lost some of its strength in numbers, it has become increasingly bookended by concentrated wealth on one end and the swelling ranks of the working poor on the other. 

Our recent political choices have succeeded only in compounding and entrenching these growing inequities. Led by a steady deregulatory drumbeat, the United States has made a gradual but profound shift in values and priorities. Tax loopholes, corporate inversions and a broken campaign finance system protect the interests of a few at a cost to many. Divestment in public education closes doors whose openness once defined our nation. Looking into federal courts, we hear the bedrock Constitutional rights of individuals morphing into expansive rights and privileges for corporations

In 2013, after-tax corporate profits as a share of the economy were at the highest level ever recorded. Labor compensation, on the other hand, comprised its smallest share of the economy since 1948. A quarter of the jobs in this country are paying salaries that keep a family of four below the federal poverty line. And let us be clear: both the amount of corporate profit that escapes taxation and the minimum level at which companies must pay their employees are bound by the laws we write. To blame market changes is to ignore policy choices. 

Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, has 1.4 million U.S. workers on its payroll and takes home upwards of $25 billion in pre-tax profit. At the same time, many of its employees are paid at levels so low they are forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance to make ends meet. And that $6.2 billion tab to cover the basic needs of Walmart employees falls at the feet of American taxpayers.

The federal benefits received by Walmart employees and other low-wage workers are not welfare; they are corporate welfare. Hard-working taxpayers are forced to subsidize a corporation’s ability to pay its workers less than they need to live. And we cannot just blame Walmart when it is Congress that sets the minimum wage and Congress that has failed to raise it. Policy choices like these keep poverty entrenched in the United States and trample on the dignity of hundreds of thousands of workers. 

What Can We Do? 

Tackling the profound economic inequity in this country means realigning public policy with the fundamental American idea that what you start with does not determine where you end up. That means reversing the deep and draconian cuts our safety nets have seen in recent years so immediate needs of food, shelter and medical care can be met. It is hard to think about going back to school or updating your résumé if you are trying to figure out how to keep your children from going hungry tonight.

It means outlawing the manipulative practices of credit card companies, payday lenders and debt collectors, which prey on cash-strapped families and trap them into a paycheck-to-paycheck cycle of just hanging on. Subprime credit cards charge sky-high interest rates to consumers who are already having trouble paying the minimum balance every month. Payday loans that demand lump sum payments lock borrowers into taking a second loan to pay off the first, drowning consumers in debt while the $9 billion industry thrives.

Breaking the cycle of poverty also means investing in early childhood education. Our children are set up to fail if they arrive for a first day of school after the achievement gap between high and low-income households has already opened. It means increasing high school graduation rates and investing in the career/technical education that opens up pathways to middle class jobs in growing fields. 

It means eliminating the false choice between providing for a family and caring for one. Laws that guarantee paid sick leave and paid family medical leave are critical for low-wage workers, who too often must choose between a sick child or a lost job. It means raising the minimum wage so no full-time worker lives below the poverty line and exploring ideas like a regionally indexed minimum wage to protect low-wage workers from falling further behind. It means extending the Earned Income Tax Credit to childless workers, an idea that has broad support on both sides of the aisle. It means passing the Paycheck Fairness Act so that women are not paid less than men for doing the same job and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act so that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers are not relegated to the economic margins. 

And it means reversing the deeply structural injustices and inefficiencies that keep our policies stacked against those with very little, from reforming our badly broken campaign finance system to improving access to legal resources to resurrecting strong voting rights protections. A society founded on human dignity and equality cannot give the wealthy greater ability to have their claims heard in court or their voices heard at the ballot box. 

None of these policies is a silver bullet. But together they work to reform a system that routinely denies working-class families mobility, opportunity and justice. Most important, they build the one force poverty cannot overcome: individuals with the means to invest in themselves, define their own future and make their families better off.

Building a system that protects the dignity of each of us is beyond the reach of any individual. It is not beyond the reach of our nation. Today, that very idea is being challenged. Across the political spectrum we are increasingly faced with people who insist that taking care of each other is a sign of weakness, rather than strength. 

It is a familiar playbook. The specter of government power has long been used to incite fear by special interests and those desperate to protect the status quo. When the Fair Labor Standards Act made permanent our minimum wage and child labor hours in 1938, there was panic that our businesses would crumble and jobs would dry up. Instead, our economy soared to global leadership in the second half of the 20th century. Wall Street warned us feverishly that Dodd-Frank financial regulations would crush the vitality of financial markets, but our stock markets have rebounded from recession and surged to all-time highs in the four years since the bill’s passage. San Francisco and Seattle currently tout the nation’s fastest rate of small business job growth. They are also home to the nation’s highest minimum wage laws. 

“Government,” wrote the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All," “is a means by which we can act together to protect what is important to us.” Or as President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, put it: “The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” 

Our most systemic shortcomings have always required collective action. If man or market were enough to capture justice on their own, then we would have never written a Constitution. We never would have needed amendments to abolish slavery, establish equal protection and due process or give women the right to vote. We would have never passed the Civil Rights Act, created Social Security, constructed a G.I. Bill or passed the Affordable Care Act.

We did these things because nearly 250 years ago we promised to build a country where every person was valued, recognized and counted. Our history is the story of a people fighting—together—to live up to that ideal. 

That promise strikes me each time we kneel for the holiest moment of Sunday Mass. At the consecration, when bread and wine become body and blood, the priest repeats Jesus’ words “Do this in memory of me.” He is calling us to remember him in celebrating the Eucharist as Catholics have done for centuries. But I believe that he softly calls us to do much more. This means gathering in community to share and support one another. This means going out into the world to serve and to love as Jesus did. This means using whatever gifts and talents we have to leave our world a little more just and fair than we found it.

Joe Kennedy III, Democratic congressman from the Fourth Congressional District of Massachusetts, is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.


GREG BUSSONE | 11/4/2014 - 9:40pm

Bravo! This article is beautifully written and embodies the essence of our Faith. The closing paragraph is one for us all to reflect upon deeply. Regardless of ones preference for any political approach verses another, if we all go "...out into the world to serve and to love as Jesus did", and we "act together" per the call of our Bishops, we can and will turn the tide of poverty in our nation. Thank you Mr. Kennedy for carrying on the Catholic Faith in your family and service to our country. May the Holy Spirit be with you!

EDWARD WELCH | 10/27/2014 - 8:35pm

This is a great article.

Ernest Martinson | 10/16/2014 - 9:19pm

Government may be a means by which we can act together to protect what is important to us; i.e. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But beyond that, we are in need of protection from an overbearing government. If we are the government as Theodore Roosevelt put it, then why did the Constitution restrict the federal government to enumerated powers and reserve the rest to the states or to us?

Joseph J Dunn | 10/13/2014 - 9:23am

The first five paragraphs of Mr. Kennedy's article present a solid case supporting Mr. Ryan's proposal that funds currently diffused through 100+/- federal programs be channeled instead through a smaller number of state-administered programs, with each beneficiary household receiving empathy, advice and counsel from a case manager who can help them achieve real and lasting solutions to their specific problems. As Mr. Kennedy and every recent pope have observed, work is not just a source of livelihood, it is also a source of dignity.

Gene Van Son | 10/11/2014 - 1:58pm

I would encourage readers to read Mr. Kennedy's essay carefully, beginning with, "We convinced the government to put the park under local control, allowing the community to set wages and craft safety precautions. We raised money and built a small business to run the park operations with more local autonomy. We set up a community reinvestment fund so that a portion of every entrance fee went into the local neighborhood—to build a bridge, buy a school bus, bring clean water to the community." He is describing how the Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity were used to help eliminate poverty in this area of the Dominican Republic. Big Government did not cure the poverty in this area. The local community did it. Also the "tour companies from the North Coast" did not create the poverty. These businesses discovered the natural beauty of the area and popularized it, which enabled the local community to pull itself out of poverty. Paul Ryan's plan is more in keeping with Catholic social teaching than Kennedy's rambling rhetoric about how government is the fix.

IGNACIO SILVA | 10/12/2014 - 9:39am

By "We" Mr. Kennedy means the Peace Corps, a cost-conscious benevolent arm of We The People i.e., the USA government. Then "We" convinced the Dominican government to make some changes that promoted self-sufficiency. There was no lobbying effort (or perhaps there was & it was not successful) from the tourist companies to block the handing over of the park to the local self-empowering interests that, with the help of the U.S. government (Peace Corps), were to improve their community. Lobbyists would have swarmed over a similar situation had it happened in the USA.
The point is that we are a mixed economy that achieved the unachievable, (NASA, interstates, the malls & buildings of D.C., the California University system, NIH & CDC, 50% of total Heath care expenditures - a semi-socialist system, etc.) thanks to the pooling of We The People's financial resources.
I challenge the abolitionists of 'government' in our Congress to resign from their posts so we can witness just how well a smaller government performs without them & their associated privileges.

Gene Van Son | 10/12/2014 - 1:13pm

The Peace Corp is a wonderful example of the generosity of the American people. We are the most generous nation on earth. But do not confuse facts. The “We” Mr. Kennedy refers to are the individual Peace Corp volunteers and the local community leaders. It is not the Federal Government of the U.S. The U.S. government did not convince the Dominican government to make changes that promoted self-sufficiency. Individual members of the Peace Corp helped the people in the community by offering them the advice, knowledge and guidance required to help them become self-sufficient – people helping people, not the government helping people. Neither the U.S. Government not the government of the Dominican Republic gave the people of the community welfare money. Both Governments merely created the conditions to enable the community to become self-sufficient.

You might want to read Pope Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus: “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the social assistance state leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need.”

IGNACIO SILVA | 10/11/2014 - 9:40am

Beats me how Mr. Ryan made no mention of disparities in income & wealth creation that are adjunct to tax laws that emanate from Congress. Among these preferential-to-the-wealthier laws are the infamous carried interest, lower taxed dividend & capital gains earnings, the $117K cap on the 6.2% obligation for Social Security, and a corporate tax structure Swiss-cheesed with loopholes, and/or a ridiculous high rate that reward going off-shore (see the most recent acquisition of Covidien by Medtronic). All of these are leaks on the US Treasury, We The People's money that must be invested in education, infrastructure, &, yes, compassionate safety nets. The 49 million people without secure meals on their tables, to which Congressman Kennedy refers, are poor consumers of goods & services & this is bad for businesses. Ask Warren Buffett for his opinion on that one. Anyway, I'm comforted to hear Congressman Kennedy's take because it demonstrates independent sanity in an insane and Super Pac-dependent Congress. I pray for his strength & perseverance to do God's Work.

Mike Evans | 10/3/2014 - 1:26pm

We used to see economists talk about "structural unemployment" as if it were a contracted viral disease that was incurable. Now we hear about "structural poverty" as if it were some part of creation's natural law of survival and reward/punishment. Most western European nations, Canada, Australia and others have not been afraid to install a simple floor of free health care, education, unemployment assistance, and food assistance supported by the entire community through individual and corporate taxes. Those societies typically do not exhibit the starvation economics we in the USA face daily with thousands of homeless, millions enduring daily hunger, and over 7.5 million unemployed people hoping desperately for a job. These societies are historically quite conservative in their outlook but also realize exacty what Catholic social teaching mandates - eradication of the major causes of long lasting poverty. For this purpose, government is often the only resource for new projects and jobs, for education and training, for distribution and supports for food, for universal health care systems. Meanwhile, for the terrible costs of waging unwinnable wars, we could easily correct the starvation economy to one with equity and fairness.

Joseph J Dunn | 10/4/2014 - 11:12am

The presentation of these two conceptual approaches to combating poverty is helpful. I do get a bit nervous whenever Americans point to other countries as shining examples of success in combating poverty and/or inequality. The evidence from those countries, developed by those living there, tells a different story. Just two examples at this site: Thomas Piketty finds only a few Scandanavian countries having relatively acceptable income and wealth equality, among all the OECD nations. Countries can and should learn from one another, but no modern society has abolished poverty in relative or absolute terms. So, both Kennedy and Ryan merit thoughtful consideration.

Jim Lein | 10/3/2014 - 1:39pm

95% of food for the poor comes from SNAP, formerly called food stamps. Until the private charity sector really steps up its game, we should not cut in to this public program. But, wait, we already have, and more cuts are wanted by Ryan and his fellow Republicans.