Bishop James W. Malone, Bishop of Youngstown
Chair, U.S. C. C. Committee on Domestic Social Policy
This Labor Day, we focus on work and family, a central relationship that defines not just what we do but who we are. For most Americans, work is a distinctly human and very personal means of expression and creativity. It provides for our material needs, offers economic security for our families and allows us to contribute to the larger community.
Unfortunately, far too many families in this country have little reason to celebrate this Labor Day. Millions of Americans are without work. Many are working but still cannot provide adequately for their families. Others do not have the skills or lack opportunities for decent work. Still others work at jobs without meaning or dignity or fear that their health, safety or job security is at risk in the workplace.
Families Facing Unemployment
Presently, more than ten million Americans are looking for work; millions more have stopped looking; another ten million are underemployed - working at part-time jobs or jobs that do not provide a decent wage Society has a moral obligation to reduce joblessness because it is through work that families are sustained, children are nurtured, and the future is secured. American society often equates freedom and personal well-being with work, so much so that people who are unemployed feel lost and without dignity. Indeed, long periods of unemployment can leave them with psychological scars as well as obvious economic difficulties.
Each day that people go without work society tells them that their talents aren't needed, that their skills don't matter -- in a real sense, they aren't needed and they don't matter. When a head of household is out of work, unemployment can devastate a family, undermine its stability, lead to the loss of its health care, and place its future in peril. Joblessness is a clear threat to family life.
Working Poor Families
Even those who do work often do not make enough to support a family Almost two-thirds of all poor families with children had a family member working during the year. Census figures report that in 1990, there were over 2 million families with children where a family member worked nearly fulltime for the full-year, and yet they remained poor. In fact, a firth of our children are growing up poor. Most of these poor working families are white two parent families; although African American and Hispanic families are more likely to be jobless and poor. Our society has become too tolerant of high levels of unemployment and much too tolerant of poverty -- with terrible costs for families and children.
Work and Welfare
Almost 13% of children in this country rely on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly called welfare, for at least part of their family's income. Our country is presently engaged in a vigorous debate about welfare and work. Some warn that welfare is becoming a way of life rather than an economic safety net for families who fall on hard times. States are slashing benefits and passing laws which cut benefits to children in order to try to influence the behavior of their parents. For example, some state legislatures have imposed financial penalties on mothers who have an additional child while receiving public assistance.
Others point out that benefits are inadequate for families and that poor families are becoming the political scapegoats of this recension. They believe lecturing poor families is no substitute for concrete programs and policies which offer help in the transition from welfare to work. Too often, welfare policy encourages families to break up to survive and to stay on welfare in order to have a decent place to live or to provide health care for their children. We can't make real progress by shaping policy that reflects society's prejudices against the poor, ill-fitting stereotypes and the temptation to balance budgets by cutting assistance to those with great needs but little clout.
Catholic social teaching is pro-work, pro-family and pro-child. Our Bishops' Conference strongly advocates changes in the welfare system that "assist recipients, wherever possible, to become self-sufficient through gainful employment. We believe that everyone who can work should work. What we need are new approaches to welfare -- not "workfare" but "family-fair" -- policies that offer poor families real opportunities to leave poverty and dependency behind, policies that do not discourage marriage and earnings, that do not simply cut off health care, housing, child care and other essential help as families leave welfare for work and education. Our number one priority should be to create real opportunities for meaningful work so that families can live in dignity, contribute to our national economy and build our local communities.
Threats to Workers' Safety and Security
Recently, Americans were shocked to read about the working conditions at the poultry processing plant in North Carolina where 25 workers died in a terrible fire behind locked doors. It was a grim reminder that some workers literally take their lives in their hands when they go to work. Workers' safety is a matter of life and death.
We are also experiencing a resurgence of child labor law abuse which, at a time of industrial realignment, also threatens poor families. Too many children now spend their time working in fast food restaurants, fields and factories rather than in school, learning and preparing for the future. Child labor laws must be strengthened and enforced and families provided with adequate means to raise children.
A growing threat to workers' security is the hiring of permanent replacements for striking workers during labor-management disputes. Labor unions have been and continue to be the vehicle for millions of workers to defend their dignity, protect their rights and ensure that their work provides a decent living for their families. Catholic social teaching supports the labor movement in its efforts to offer real participation in the economy for workers and their families. Our tradition contradicts those who dismiss the positive role of genuine collective bargaining or undermine its effectiveness through anti-union measures such as the permanent replacement of striking workers.
Old Values, New Challenges
In our recent statement, Putting Children and Families First, the American bishops call for new public, private and community initiatives to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families. While they remind parents to invest more time in raising children, they also call on government, business and labor to support families. In addition to the policies already highlighted, the bishops call for national leadership:
- to reform our tax laws to include a refundable children's tax credit and an expanded earned income credit to recognize the economic consequences of raising children;
- to reform the health care system to make it accessible and affordable for all families;
- to fight discrimination, hunger and homelessness that undermine the dignity of many families;
- to finally enact a family and medical leave law, so parents don't have to choose between their jobs and their children at moments of crisis.
Labor Day reminds us that people work not only for self-respect, but out of a profound regard for others. The job is a means for workers and their families to participate in the larger community and to contribute to the common good. Work is an expression of our creativity and our humanity and for the Christian it is much more. It is the way in which we use our God-given talents and abilities to participate in the continuing process of creation.
On this Labor Day, let us commit ourselves to support families by confronting widespread joblessness, wages that leave children in poverty and policies that force parents to choose between their jobs and their children. Let us recommit ourselves to protect families and defend children by refocusing on the crucial connection between decent jobs at decent wages and healthy family life.