Can Catholic social teaching help solve the labor crisis?
Rudy Limas had had a lot of jobs when the manufacturing industry that employed him finally folded. He’d driven tractors and trucks, picked produce and been an owner-operator for a small company. He’s never been afraid of hard work.
When his manufacturing job finally folded, he started collecting unemployment and zealously looking for a new job. At 61, he found it difficult to persuade people that he had the energy and drive for hard work. “They look at your age and think ‘he can’t handle it,’ even though I can,” he related sadly to the multimedia project, “Over 50 and Out of Work.” He worries that his family might soon end up on the streets.
A few decades from now, the United States may have a new crop of ghost towns. Across the nation, many cities and small towns are literally shrinking as people pack up and look elsewhere for opportunity. There is not much left in cities like Galesburg, Ill., Flint, Mich., or Fossil, Ore. Falling wages and disappearing jobs have led to falling populations. Some small cities are on the verge of extinction. Some larger cities are now sporting entire neighborhoods where houses and shops are mostly empty, falling slowly into ruin.
What happened to these once-thriving U.S. towns? It is easy to disregard such a crisis when the jobless are, for the most part, out of sight and mind. They are not standing in bread lines or marching on Washington. They are at home, watching television or playing video games. Many have mental health problems, disabilities or illnesses; many more are addicted to alcohol or drugs. The opioid crisis has especially ravaged areas where unemployment is high, thereby perpetuating the problem. As of December of last year, a record-breaking 95 million American adults (a startling number of prime-age men) were neither employed nor in a period of career transition, since they were not looking for new jobs. The United States in this century has seen the most severe falloff in employment rates since before World War II.
Human beings were made for work. Although human dignity is innate, it is natural and fitting for us as rational beings to develop our gifts and potentialities, using them to help unfold God’s creation. Some people have a limited capacity to do this for physiological reasons, and Christians should never forget that the very young, the very old, the sick and the disabled bless us by reflecting Christ’s own image in a unique way.
Work need not entail monetary compensation in order to be valuable. Many caregivers, for example, do great work for which they are not paid. But when the capable are unable to find paid work that they need for economic reasons, widespread frustration and despair results. In both of his labor encyclicals, St. John Paul II discusses joblessness as one of the most crippling ailments of modern life, and Pope Francis has also returned many times to this theme. According to Francis, “[Work] makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts."
The unemployment crisis could get worse, but not for the reasons that we repeatedly hear blaring from news channels and talk radio. It is true that immigration can create wage pressure in low-skill industries, and outsourcing has taken a harsh toll on particular U.S. towns where the economy was once heavily dependent on a single factory or industry. But those losses are offset by a number of gains, including more-affordable consumer goods and job growth in other areas. In the end, this debate is a noisy sideshow to a much more significant issue: For most working Americans, foreigners are not the main competition—machinesare the ones gunning for jobs.
For most working Americans, foreigners are not the main competition—machinesare the ones gunning for jobs.
Technology has long been a major driver of unemployment. Even in manufacturing, a recent study from Ball State University suggests that only 13 percent of job loss since the 1960s is attributable to trade and outsourcing, with technological advances explaining the rest. As sobering as that is, we are likely on the verge of another wave of layoffs. Breakthroughs in automation and information technology may soon turn millions of productive U.S. workers into buggy-makers. Driverless cars (already being piloted on our city streets) threaten to consume millions of jobs in the coming years. Sales clerks, cashiers and accountants are already hard-pressed to compete with computers, but even once-prestigious jobs like law and medicine are starting to swap humans for machines. Machines will work overtime without a paycheck, but that is not the only issue. In many cases, they simply do the work better.
One study in 2013 found that 47 percent of Americans were at high risk of losing their jobs to automation in the foreseeable future. Another study, released just this year, suggested that as many as 38 percent of currently existing U.S. jobs might disappear over just the next 15 years. In labor terms, this is a much bigger issue than immigration.
From the comfort of an armchair, we can see many ironies in our present situation. How strange that humanity perfected the “labor-saving device” to the point where there is no longer enough labor to go around. How interesting that alienation theory began in the 19th century with concern about the dehumanizing effects of repetitive, low-skill factory jobs, only to find us two centuries later, still alienated but now pining for more low-skill factory jobs. It feels like a kind of cosmic joke.
How strange that humanity perfected the “labor-saving device” to the point where there is no longer enough labor to go around.
The unemployed are not laughing though, and neither should we. We can understand that the United States’s poor and marginalized yearn to be full participants in their own societies. As Catholics, with our rich body of social teachings, we need to stay engaged in the conversation, helping people find work that is meaningful. Of course that means encouraging job growth. But we may also need to reject some of the quickest and most obvious solutions to the employment problem, in the interests of realizing an economy built around service and the common good.
Work as Service
Our ancestors might well have been perplexed by the modern demand for work. For many of them, work was a heavy cross indeed, and in the day-to-day of modern life we often experience work as drudgery. Nevertheless, St. John Paul II reminds us that work is “a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth.” In Genesis, God commandsAdam and Eve to work, and responding to that command is our way of answering the divine call to “multiply and subdue the Earth.” Most of us, perhaps, would choose leisure over work on any given day, but we dowant to be contributing members of society and to fill our lives with meaningful projects and activities. Those involve work, and people who are capable and willing to work, but unable to find it, are less happy, less healthy and more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors.
Catholic social teaching has always placed a heavy emphasis on the personal or subjective dimension of work. In “Rerum Novarum” (1891), Pope Leo XIII suggests that “the personal element in a man’s work” can be considered independently from the objective ends. Continuing on this theme, Catholic social teaching has steadfastly affirmed that a worker is a human being, with his own needs and personal motivations. He cannot be treated as merely a means to a utilitarian end.
Catholic social teaching has steadfastly affirmed that a worker is a human being, with his own needs and personal motivations. He cannot be treated as merely a means to a utilitarian end.
It can be difficult to keep sight of this truth in an industrialized world. Technology has enabled us to build trade networks that crisscross the planet, generating wealth and opportunity that our ancestors could hardly have imagined. This is a stunning achievement, with many wonderful ramifications: a billion people have been lifted out of grinding poverty in the last few decades alone; global illiteracy rates have fallen dramatically; heinous diseases like polio and smallpox have been effectively eradicated. Ordinary people today have untold educational and spiritual resources at their fingertips. With these benefits come new challenges, however. Market forces have transformed societies and cultures, leaving a legacy of alienation, social fragmentation and environmental degradation.
Among the many intense challenges modern societies face, labor issues may be among the most difficult. Partly, this is just a consequence of the labor market’s size and pace of change. Historically it was normal for people to take up the same professions as their parents; today it can be difficult to sustain a career even across a single lifetime. In a massive corporation, an employer cannot possibly get to know all of his workers personally, so it is easy to start viewing them as mere “assets.”
The challenges posed by market forces do not easily lend themselves to magic-bullet solutions. That is partly because, as St. John Paul argues in “On Human Work,”work is the natural point of intersection between individuals, families and society as a whole. On a personal level, people need jobs with humane hours and tolerable working conditions, ideally with opportunities for advancement and personal growth. On the level of the family, breadwinners need salaries adequate for the frugal support of their dependents.
Underlying all of this, however, it remains true that work derives its objective significance from its meaningful contribution to the common good. It does not matter, to this end, if the involved tasks are menial. Waiters, filing clerks and sanitation workers can all serve the common good in their various ways. Meaningful work needs to contain a real element of service. This is the magical ingredient that can convert even a dreary task into something ennobling, humanizing and salutary for our souls.
Meaningful work needs to contain a real element of service.
Of course, it is difficult to provide any service if you not supported in your work, or if your inherent dignity is overlooked. A “good job” needs to combine a great many factors. That may explain why Western nations enjoy abundant wealth but find stability and social inclusion to be far more elusive.
The Problem with Meaningless Work
Catholic social teaching offers a rich storehouse of insights that can be applied to our labor crisis. Catholics have spent more than a century discussing the subjective dimension of labor, so we should be gratified to see a sudden surge of interest in this topic. Over the past few years, unlikely politicians have risen to prominence with the promise of good jobs, while a quick glance through the daily paper may reveal anxious pieces on the “gig economy,” the “Fight for Fifteen” or the collapse of labor unions. Labor issues are moving to the forefront of our political discourse as we grapple with the ramifications of our shifting economy.
As participants in this national (and global) debate, what insights should Catholics press? It is a difficult question, precisely because the relevant concerns are so numerous. Of course, we should want workers to have reasonable wages, healthy working conditions and job stability.
Catholics have long served as advocates for workers—stressing these points comes naturally to us. However, as the political pressures mount, we may need to broaden our focus. Political leaders will be tempted to prioritize the subjective dimension of labor to the exclusion of anydeep concern about the objective value of the work. If workers complain of depressed wages, just raise the minimum wage. If a company threatens to outsource, offer them special subsidies or tax breaks as an incentive to keep jobs at home. If a technological advance threatens jobs, pass regulations designed to slow or halt its introduction into the workforce. These are obvious measures that bring immediate relief to suffering people, and for a politician that may be incentive enough.
Taking the long view, though, there are serious drawbacks to this Band-Aid approach. Stimulating new markets is much more difficult than generating or protecting make-work jobs, but the former is much better if we want people to spend their lives engaged in meaningful activities. And we do want that. Beyond the wages, hours and other job-related minutiae, workers deserve the opportunity to apply their talents and abilities toward some form of genuine service. Meaningful work should further the common good in some way.
Empty, make-work jobs generally are not advertised as such, but they can be created indirectly. Governments have many methods of protecting jobs from ordinary market pressure. By assessing tariffs on foreign goods, we can give U.S. companies a competitive advantage in home markets. Tax breaks and subsidies can buoy up companies that are lagging behind their competitors. (When President Trump makes headlines by “saving” a factory from outsourcing, we can safely presume that he has offered advantages of this kind.) Regulations and laws provide another means of protecting particular industries or professions—for instance, by banning self-pumped gas, New Jersey keeps gas station attendants in a job.
Free market economists are quick to point out the economic and political costs of these measures. Goods and services are more expensive when we are paying for planned inefficiency. Subsidies and tax breaks can be manipulated by the already-wealthy, fueling political corruption and cro nyism. It is also important to understand that anything we do to prop up existing industries will tend to deter innovation and entrepreneurship. There is no good way to protect jobs from foreign (or technological) competition without also “protecting” ourselves from start-up companies that might eventually create more and better jobs.
There is no good way to protect jobs from foreign (or technological) competition without also “protecting” ourselves from start-up companies that might eventually create more and better jobs.
Sometimes, as a response to catastrophic job loss, we may decide that these costs are worth paying. Innovation sounds good on paper, but the social cost of rapid change may not always be worth it. Still, in calculating the trade-offs, we should try to tally the costs as accurately as we can. Among those costs, there may be subjectivelosses of meaning for the worker himself, as his job ceases to represent a real contribution to the common good.
That sounds harsh, but the possibility naturally arises once we start asking society to make sacrifices just to keep jobs in existence. And there aresacrifices. Protectionist policies inevitably have consequences both for workers and for consumers. In the early 2000s, George W. Bush’s steel tariffs probably depressed job growth in Rust Belt states. When Barack Obama used tariffs to protect U.S. tire manufacturers from Chinese competition, Princeton economists estimated that this cost Americans about $900,000 per job, per year. Those are significant costs, which do not even account for potential losses in entrepreneurship. Even if these measures are occasionally needed as a stop-gap, we need to generate more effective long-term solutions.
Work is about more than just money, of course. Some of society’s most crucial work is done for menial wages or none at all. That is because personal, direct service (especially to the poorest and weakest) is hard to monetize; the people who most benefit often are not in a position to pay. To a child, his mother is irreplaceable, but he or she does not have any money, so she serves him for free. A healthy civil society has many such “laborers of love” whose contributions are motivated by the awareness that human beings are precious regardless of their ability to work. In these cases, human concern takes precedence over material profit.
Seeing the pain that job loss causes, we might be tempted to justify protectionist policies because they take immediate human concern into account before long-term market value. The problem here is that protectionist measures typically are not implemented to protect “love labor” and its thick human dimension. They target the sorts of jobs that were createdby the vicissitudes of global markets. Trade barriers are implemented to protect factory workers, not social workers, and it is difficult to assess the value of a tire factory without considering the worth of the tires. Chinese-manufactured wheels serve our needs just as well as those made here in the United States, so it is possible to identify a point at which society as a whole is accepting lossesto the common good, for the sake of maintaining the illusion of productivity on the part of the individual worker.
It is all right to exercise that kind of paternalism with children. Can rational adults be satisfied with that sort of patronizing facade? A desperate man will take whatever job will enable him to feed his children, but is it fair to deprive honest workers of the opportunity to make a genuinesocial contribution through their labor? By undermining the objective value of work, protectionist policies can drain labor of its subjective value also.
More Jobs, More Meaning
Communities reeling from job loss need to be stabilized. Over the long term, though, we also need an economy that enables people to apply their energies to meaningful work that advances the common good. A balanced policy approach needs to address both concerns, and we already have some ideas about how to do this.
Over the long term, though, we also need an economy that enables people to apply their energies to meaningful work that advances the common good.
For those who truly need material assistance, it is better to subsidize directly than to distort the labor market. As far as possible, antipoverty programs should be targeted to supplement incomes without miring people in benefit dependency, and some programs (like the Earned Income Tax Credit) have shown reasonable success in doing this. Some have suggested that a universal basic income (a modest sum paid annually to every American, regardless of whether he is working) might provide citizens just enough stability to keep them afloat while they look for meaningful work. These programs aim to provide some “safety net” while still giving people an incentive to look for work. Ideally, they would enable the labor market to shift into a more sustainable model while also providing some cushion to protect the most vulnerable.
What sort of “new economy” might emerge? Our goal should be to build an economy in which people work for genuinely valuable ends. Considering the matter from that perspective, we might note that there is lotsof valuable work that needs doing. Our nation is full of dirty houses, litter-filled streets and sick and elderly people who receive grossly inadequate care. We could also benefit from more artists, musicians, scholars, pastors, spiritual directors and gardeners. Instead of spending $900,000 so a factory worker can make tires here in the United States, what if we could spend that money on personal chefs, personal tutors or home care workers? What if it could go to support scholarship, medical research or an embrace of sustainable agriculture?
It is natural for people in need to want to work. It is wrong to meet this need through a glut of empty busywork. Wouldn’t it be better in the long run if machines did the most mundane tasks related to creating our material goods, leaving humans more free for personal service and cultural pursuits?
As we move through this period of labor anxiety, we should make every effort to stand in solidarity with the unemployed and the marginalized. At the same time, we must keep our eyes fixed on the horizon, where we can spy a worthy goal: a truly humane economy that enables people to offer their real talents and abilities in service of the common good.