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.