Of Many Things

Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey were tired of watching their kids eat fish sticks and Tater Tots, those ubiquitous yet nutritionless staples of the American school lunch, so in 2006 the two moms from Oakland, Calif., decided to found Revolution Foods “to transform the way America eats by providing access to healthy, affordable meals to schools.” They started out serving 300 healthy lunches a day to students in Oakland; today, they serve more than 200,000 meals daily to students nationwide and employ more than 1,000 people.

The company was listed second on last year’s Inner City 100, an annual ranking of high-achieving, for-profit companies published by Fortune magazine and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to leverage market forces in order to break cyclical patterns of poverty in America’s urban areas. From 1999 to 2012, Inner City 100 firms operated in 146 cities and generated more than 76,000 new jobs and $2 billion in annual sales.

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All of this is to say that Pope Francis probably didn’t have the Inner City 100 in mind when he spoke recently about the unjust, even nefarious dimensions of market capitalism. Indeed, the pope pointed out in one interview that “the only specific quote I used [in the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”] was the one regarding the ‘trickle-down theories,’ which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world” (emphasis added).

I doubt that the pope’s ex post facto qualification will soothe the anxieties of Rush Limbaugh and some of his more dogmatic Republican brethren. Nor should it, really. Pope Francis offers a generally accurate—if trenchant—critique of the perils of capitalism, one that also appears in black and white for all to see in the social doctrine of the church. Those on the secular left, however, should take little comfort in that fact. While the church’s teaching on economics is not popular at conservative policy salons, it is not synonymous with the Democratic Party platform either. Pope Francis has also been critical of Marxism, especially when it takes the form of theology. “The Marxist ideology is wrong,” he said flat-out in December.

So where does that leave us? First, we need to recall that the church’s teaching on economics is a moral teaching; it is not a technical prescription. We believe that human beings have a duty to care for one another, especially for the least among us; this requires social and political structures that promote moral responsibility, equality of opportunity, an equitable distribution of resources and a strong social safety net.

But apart from a thoroughly justifiable suspicion of utterly this-worldly -isms, whether they originate with the left or the right, the church is—if you’ll pardon the expression—largely agnostic when it comes to the technical means of building a more just society. The question, in other words, is simply “what works?” What is the best, just way of building a more just and prosperous world? If it’s more start-up ventures like Revolution Foods, then so be it. If it means a generous government benefit, then so be it. If it’s somehow both, then even better.

If the left feels only affirmed by what the pope has said, then they have missed the point. If the right feels only threatened, then they too have missed the point. “Today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” Francis has said. A brief survey of the 20th century—from London’s degraded East End to the killing fields of Cambodia—reminds us that the left and the right are both capable of creating murderous economies. As with Revolution Foods, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

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4 years 11 months ago
Well said Matt. "...the church is...largely agnostic when it comes to the technical means of building a more just society." The church by which I mean all the people of God are at the same time rather agnostic about the moral dimension of society. The average Joseph or Mary (salva reverentia) may have gut feelings about justice but not an ability to articulate or kick them up to the level of a social conversation that speaks in worldly enough terms to make progress in forming an economy of inclusion and equality. Ne'er the less your point is right on!
Marie Rehbein
4 years 11 months ago
Something about the following isn't right: "While the church’s teaching on economics is not popular at conservative policy salons, it is not synonymous with the Democratic Party platform either. Pope Francis has also been critical of Marxism, especially when it takes the form of theology. 'The Marxist ideology is wrong,' he said flat-out in December" I would say that despite the use of the word "also" in "Pope Francis has also been critical of Marxism...", the lack of examples in how the church's teaching on economics is not synonymous with the Democratic Party platform leaves the paragraph suggesting that Marxism and the Democratic Party platform have things in common.
Joseph J Dunn
4 years 11 months ago
Amen, Father Malone.
J Cosgrove
4 years 11 months ago
I doubt that the pope’s ex post facto qualification will soothe the anxieties of Rush Limbaugh and some of his more dogmatic Republican brethren.
My experience is that most people do not understand capitalism or Rush Limbaugh and his economic philosophy. Limbaugh would actively celebrate Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey. He is also a big fan of the Catholic Church. I suggest that the editors of America read what he said about the Pope's economic pronouncements. No Catholic could have any qualms with Rush Limbaugh on this though a lot have tried to paint him as some sort of extremist or as anti-Catholic. Nothing is further from the truth. Capitalism takes on many forms and it is only in its free market entrepreneurial version that it is really most effective. (the form that is protected by the rule of law and ensures private property for all and protects both parties in all economic transactions.) This form of capitalism has lifted the world out of perennial poverty in the last 250 years starting first in Holland and England and then spreading to the new United States and eventually to the rest of Western Europe. From there is spread to a large part of the world. There has been a real trickle down as the residents of the most impoverished areas of the world get to utilize the innovations of the capitalist world including food, health, logistical, technological and education innovations. Teenagers in sub-Saharian Africa have more computing power in their hands than the United States government had just 40 years ago. The average worker can produce several times more than their ancestors did just a 100 years ago. The achievements go on and on. There is only one moral way to distribute goods. Every other way favors some over the many.
Joseph J Dunn
4 years 11 months ago
I take the central point of Fr. Malone's piece to be "The question, in other words, is simply 'what works.' What is the best, just way of building a more just and prosperous world?" If we evaluated every proposal for economic justice on its merits, rather than on the basis of who introduced the idea (and what is their political party) we might make much better progress. Both Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have acknowledged the benefits brought to the world's population by innovation, trade, etc. In our American experience, we ought to accept that success, which has brought all Americans, including the poor, a higher standard of living. At the same time, we need to accept that at least a few government programs have solved problems that defied every other approach. Social Security is one example. With a minor adjustment during the 1980s, the original 1935 program has broken the historical link between old age and abject poverty. Today we have more than a century of experience with large corporations, expanded federal government, and a vibrant non-profit sector. Many efforts have been made to improve the situation of the poor. Each has been an experiment. Some succeeded, some failed and wasted resources. A few actually caused real misery. Noble intent does not assure success. As the article suggests, the test needs to be "what works?"
Christian McNamara
4 years 11 months ago
I think it's significant that Fr. Malone defines "what works" as the "best, JUST way of building a more just and prosperous world." Solutions based on government benefits are necessarily coercive, with the taxes used to fund such benefits taken from taxpayers whether or not they would wish to support the benefits. This is not to say that government-based solutions have no role, but that they must be evaluated not only in terms of what they mean for those they are intended to benefit, but also for what they mean for those who must fund them. On a perhaps somewhat related note, I think Fr. Malone again hits the nail on the head relative to the importance of "social and political structures that promote moral responsibility." One of the concerns I have about growing reliance on government-based solutions to poverty is the erosion that seems to have resulted in the personal sense of moral responsibility for the plight of the poor. "No need for me to worry about the hungry in my community. The government's got it!" I don't think that this is an inevitable consequence of the growth of government-based solutions, but it certainly seems to be occurring lately.
Joseph J Dunn
4 years 11 months ago
Christian, in some cases the people intended to get the benefit are the same people who fund these "social and political structures." Consider that the poor, including the working poor, pay rent, a significant portion of which is used by the landlord to pay property taxes that pay for the costs of a public education system. In too many cases, the education system (which certainly includes parents) is failing horribly. Lots of people, including many who care deeply for their children and want a good education for them, are thus doubly robbed. Where is the public indignation, or the episcopal letter, or the street-level protests against this injustice?
Michael Barberi
4 years 11 months ago
Thank you Fr. Malone for this article. Another great program that is working is the Family Independence Initiative. I am sure there are many other examples. Truly U.S. capitalism has allowed such morally responsible social programs to emerge and flourish. They address the problems of the poor and near poor, and those who are heavily burdened. As a wise parish priest told me once "we must become more like Jesus and do what we can". This means individuals, groups and the RCC. The new evangelization that is yet to be implemented must enlighten, encourage and move Catholics, and others, to a ministry to the poor and the disadvantaged. As Fr. Malone mentioned, it is not important what form of action our efforts takes to bring about a more just and equitable society….political, individual, community, personal time or money, our prayers, to name a few. Pope Francis' few comments about capitalism was IMO directed toward the ill-extremes of capitalism, not the good that U.S. capitalism continues to create. We can do more, but we must never be ignorant about the means and the funding of good ideas. Our current form of economic and social capitalism is not perfect but it has benefited its citizens more than the citizens of any other country's political and economic system. I agree, there are unintentional consequences or our laws and economic policies that negatively impact the poor more than the rich. We must work to move our nation to a more just and equity society. To repeat a wise advice of my parish priest, "we must become more like Jesus and do what we can".
J Cosgrove
4 years 11 months ago
I have been reading a series of exchanges between various economic writers and bloggers on the concept of poverty, inequality, what causes inequality and economic mobility during one's life and what to do about. I am sure others have a different series of discussions they can point to. .For what it is worth to those who are interested, they can read the various writings of Aparna Mathur, James Pethokoukis, Robert VerBruggen, Reihan Salam, Mary Alice McCarthy, Noah Smith and Miles Kimbal on these topics. Aparna Mathur testified to Congress on Thursday about this and her testimony is at http://www.aei.org/files/2014/01/16/-mathurinequality-testimony0116_130314932539.pdf One of the key things she says is that income is a bad way to measure poverty. Consumption is a much better way. Just how much does each person consume in our society. Because the low income person has other sources of money and economic purchasing power besides income, the use of income as a measure of poverty is not a good one. Read her testimony to see the logic and the data. Here are some of the other articles on these topics by these writers who discuss entrepreneurism for the poor, family structure, cognitive ability, attitudes and other issues that affect economic success: http://www.aei-ideas.org/2014/01/masses/ http://realclearpolicy.com/blog/2014/01/14/entrepreneurship_inequality_solution.html http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/368492/easier-business-creation-isnt-going-eliminate-entrenched-poverty-reihan-salam http://higheredwatch.newamerica.net/blogposts/2013/one_in_six_american_adults_lack_basic_skills_the_piaac_results_and_implications_for_0 http://qz.com/139453/theres-one-key-difference-between-kids-who-excel-at-math-and-those-who-dont/ Lots of food for thought. Maybe it will help on how best to spend the money to enable those born into the bottom 20% of households to move upwards. Maybe it will make us aware of just what poverty means. It is probably not one of material goods but one that is much more intellectual, cultural and spiritual. There is probably many households that are above the bottom quintile that are intellectually, culturally and spiritually deprived. One indication is that 40% of the children are now born into a family that does not have a traditional mother and a father.
Vincent Gaglione
4 years 10 months ago
I find that a large portion of the “what works” solutions that are suggested most often have an implicit presumption of the concept of the “deserving poor” embedded in them. When the solutions don’t work for some people in poverty, the answer comes back that they refused the help and the poverty is their own fault. All of which may be true, but these children of God are still in poverty. Do we still owe them assistance and support? I believe that as Christians we are obliged to do so. While Father Malone tried to provide an even-handed political comparison of points of view vis-à-vis Pope Francis’ public comments on poverty, I do believe that the “what works” suggestions of my Democrat confreres comes closest to my point of view than do those of either Republicans or Marxists who ironically share the opposite extremes of the political spectrum.

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