Persistent Unemployment an Affront to Human Dignity

Millions of workers are being denied the honor and respect they deserve because of a lack of jobs, underemployment, low wages and exploitation, according to the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. “Earlier this year, Pope Francis pointed out, ‘Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person.... It gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation,’” said Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., in the U.S. bishops’ annual Labor Day statement.

“Unfortunately, millions of workers today are denied this honor and respect as a result of unemployment, underemployment, unjust wages, wage theft, abuse and exploitation,” Bishop Blaire said.


“The economy is not creating an adequate number of jobs that allow workers to provide for themselves and their families,” Bishop Blaire said. “More than four million people have been jobless for over six months, and that does not include the millions more who have simply lost hope. For every available job, there are often five unemployed and underemployed people actively vying for it. This jobs gap pushes wages down. Half of the jobs in this country pay less than $27,000 per year. More than 46 million people live in poverty, including 16 million children.”

In his message on behalf of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Blaire quoted from the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”: “While an immense number of people still lack the absolute necessities of life, some, even in less advanced areas, live in luxury or squander wealth.”

“How can it be said that persons honor one another when such ‘extravagance and wretchedness exist side by side’?” he asked. Those words, Bishop Blaire noted, “seem to be just as true today.”

Bishop Blaire also quoted from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Charity in Truth” (2009), which also dealt in part with the specter of inequality. “The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner,” Pope Benedict said, “and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.”

The bishop noted how workers’ issues are tied to other issues. “High unemployment and underemployment are connected to the rise in income inequality,” he said. Such inequality erodes social cohesion and puts democracy at risk. “The pain of the poor and those becoming poor in the rising economic inequality of our society is mounting,” he added.

“Whenever possible we should support businesses and enterprises that protect human life and dignity, pay just wages and protect workers’ rights,” Bishop Blaire wrote. “We should support immigration policies that bring immigrant workers out of the shadows to a legal status and offer them a just and fair path to citizenship, so that their human rights are protected and the wages for all workers rise.”

Bishop Blaire also commented on the importance of unions in the bishops’ statement, noting that the “rise in income inequality has mirrored a decline in union membership.” He said, “Since the end of the Civil War, unions have been an important part of our economy because they provide protections for workers and more importantly a way for workers to participate in company decisions that affect them. Catholic teaching has consistently affirmed the right of workers to choose to form a union.”

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J Cosgrove
5 years 5 months ago
I suggest that America, the magazine, reduce all salaries to just above the poverty level and then double the work force for the magazine (I would guess that the salaries are not very high to begin with.). They could go to the local unemployment office and select workers by lottery. That will be their small bit to help the unemployment problem. Am I being serious? Of course not. Employment does not work that way. What would America do with double the work force? Probably not find ways to use them economically and then see many of their current employees leave and find better paying work. So why are there not more jobs available? Jobs just don't poof into existence because someone says we need more of them. There must be a need before someone is willing to spend money on someone else. All those who think that jobs can just be created, take your own money and savings and go out and hire someone to help you in your job or house or with your family. If there is a need and it is economical then you will do it. If there is not a need or it is not economical, you will not do it. As my children grew up, we employed household help with the children. We figured that either my income or my wife's income was being used to pay for the people and the extra taxes we had to pay because we were in a higher tax bracket. But not everyone can do this nor can businesses if they don't see an economic return. I suggest that the way to more jobs in the US and the world is to make it economical to hire people. But by forcing someone to do so by specifying they must conform to certain regulations will end up with just the opposite, less jobs. So maybe the kind hearted approach is to reduce the requirements on what potential employers must do. And the inconsiderate and hard hearted approach is to tell potential employers what they must do because it is a socially just policy. Especially when it then ends up restricting what can be economically done and the result is less people get hired. Jesuits believe in the natural law. Economics is just one aspect of the natural law playing out in a society. When one tries to over-ride the natural law, one often gets very bad unintended consequences. So be very careful when you try to say what is best, because it may actually be much worse.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 5 months ago
Clear as always, J Cosgrove. So often, people demand new jobs be created without any thought of profit to the owners of the business. It is as if jobs are thought to be a good and profits for investors are seen as a necessary evil. But, of course, profits are the cause of jobs. Investors would be irrational to invest in unprofitable companies. If they did, they would soon thereafter cease to be investors.
Stanley Kopacz
5 years 4 months ago
To make things more fair, let's remove the protection of limited liability from corporations. That way, if investors and CEO's make money from things that cause cancer in children, they and their assets will be subject to lawsuits because they selfishly profited from careless evil. Or, because of the special privileges granted them by the government, they should be required to conform to stipulations making them of some general social benefit. Also, employment of blue collar people can be improved by devaluing the dollar which kills off foreign vacations for people like us, but "poor us". I think this would be better than reducing vast numbers of Americans to working while starving, turning the country into a huge neoconservative Auschwitz. Of course, government social programs can prevent the starvation with food stamps but then that becomes another subsidy for megabusiness.
Charles Erlinger
5 years 5 months ago
The various statements of principle certainly ring true in the context of the practice of justice as a moral virtue, by all who are in a position to do so, from government officials to leaders of business and industry to individual employers of household employees. But on a systemic scale, improving an entire society's economic condition would seem to require a significant coherence of combined efforts, informed, to be sure by the virtue of justice, but also, as has been pointed out in a comment, by certain normative concepts of economic validity. The caveat that has been pointed out pertaining to unintended consequences derives immediately from the fact that economics is a social science, not a part of natural law. The "laws" of economics are rational conclusions pertaining to human behavior in the economic realm, based on the predictive outcomes of economic models. But these models are, in turn, based on a number of simplifying assumptions (along with, when possible, a number of historical and/or experimental data points). In any case, they are anything but "natural."
J Cosgrove
5 years 5 months ago
I have to disagree with you. Natural law is most often associated with morals or ethics but is in fact a set of laws based on human nature. From Wikipedia
Natural law, or the law of nature (Latin: lex naturalis), is a system of law that is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature—both social and personal—and deduce binding rules of moral behavior from it.
Economics is really the study of incentives and how a human reacts to incentives is very much based on how we have been built or the natural law. Thus, any place incentives are active, economics is relevant. It does not have to involve the transfer of money but economic goods can encompass nearly all our activities. There are many who are applying the natural law to the morality of the distribution of goods but for it to be a sound theory of morality it must be based on the natural law. It must look at the incentives that drive human behavior. Any way it is a small point and not much to disagree on. But as far as jobs are concerned it is incentives freely exercised that drive the creation of real jobs and if that is lost in social or religious policy, then we will see dysfunctional outcomes.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 5 months ago
I have commented before that income inequality is a tricky measure of wellbeing. The Bishops are concerned about income inequality, but they may not know that income inequality is dropping globally, with a rising middle class in China and India. Is that a good thing? In the last paragraph of the article, Bishop Blair is quoted as noting that the “rise in income inequality has mirrored a decline in union membership.” But, that could easily be explained by the loss of manufacturing jobs to even poorer workers abroad, reducing global inequality. It could also be that union membership is a disincentive to hiring, at least for private-sector jobs. Here are some stats on union workers ( Union membership in 2012 in the USA is 11.3% and declining (as it is highest in the 55-64 age sector, at 14.6%). For the private sector, it was only 6.6% and for government workers it was 36%. For part-time workers it was 6%, and most new jobs in this recovery are part-time and in states where union membership is lower. So much in economics is frustrated by unintended consequences and neglecting incentives and the fundamentals of supply and demand. For example, Obamacare is almost certainly going to reduce the number of full-time jobs (over 30 hours) and increase the number of companies that stop growing beyond 50 employees for these businesses to keep their costs under control. Why wouldn't a successful businessman open a second company to do the same thing once his business hits 40 fulltime workers? Didn't the inventors of Obamcare think of these incentives? Even the Unions are complaining about this unintended consequence. And it is not easy to fix without other negative effects on jobs. I think the focus on inequality or minimum wage in government policy has not worked. Certainly, the focus on equality in the last century caused untold suffering. Isn't it the moral thing to pragmatically look for solutions that work? The breakdown of the family (unwed mothers, no fault divorce, and wide acceptance of sex outside marriage) and illiteracy (despite massive increases in dollars for education) are much more likely to cause deprivation of goods (and inequality) than a low minimum wage or a "flatter" tax system.
Catherine Schmitt
5 years 4 months ago
Would Dr. King say, "I have a compliant about persistent unemployment being an affront to human dignity"? And who should respond to this compliant? The "economy" that isn't creating an adequate number of jobs? Perhaps we need a lesson from Dr. King's playbook and have more dreams and fewer complaints about how to improve the future.
Christian McNamara
5 years 4 months ago
I agree that persistent unemployment, income inequality, the percentage of jobs that consign one to poverty, etc. are a problem, but what is the solution? The article mentions unionization, immigration reform, and support for businesses that are just. Solution #1 seems likely to be counterproductive, as businesses relocate or shut down in the face of organizing efforts. Heavily unionized industries like auto and steel have been hemorrhaging middle class jobs for years. Solution #2 is important on its own merits, but I don't see how it will make a significant contribution to addressing the problems diagnosed in the article. And I'm not sure that there are enough just businesses for Solution #3 to make a dent. Finally, I think old standby "solutions" like raising the minimum wage have unintended consequences that can result in more harm than good. So the Bishops have convinced me that there's a problem, but now I need a little guidance on what we should all be doing about it.
Marie Rehbein
5 years 4 months ago
One thing that needs attention is the way income is defined and taxed. The system currently rewards the hoarding of wealth. The rich tell each other nonsense such as that their income is taxed twice when they have to pay capital gains taxes -- because the company pays taxes on its profits and, as individuals, they have to pay taxes on their profits. Having a lower tax rate on capital gains isn't the same thing as using the tax system to reward investment, but they claim that it is and that on top of that it is unfair to them.
Zion Green
4 years 5 months ago
Finding good news when it comes to the U.S. unemployment rate requires extremely low expectations. Jobless claims rose last week, but not as much as economists expected. Employment has been growing steadily as the number of people filing for unemployment insurance has held steady, but not enough to budge the 9.6 percent U.S. unemployment rate.


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