In 1986, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote and approved the pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,’’ that addressed our national economy and related social justice issues. Much has changed over the last 27 years as the national economy experienced the Great Recession, the wealth gap has continued to widen, and the rates of poverty and joblessness in the nation have risen.
Out of more than 316 million Americans, only 144 million are the in the workforce. Our remaining countrymen and women are unemployed, retired, disabled or living in poverty. The racial wealth gap, according to an Urban Institute study, also has grown dramatically. From 2007-10, Hispanic families lost 44 percent of their wealth, black families 31 percent and white families 11 percent.
Needless to say, the American dream has become even more elusive. While the unemployment rate has improved from its high of 10.2 percent in October 2009, it has remained stubbornly stagnant at about 7.2 percent as of July 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So with 25 years of experience, it was a perfect time for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to readdress several important issues in their draft document, “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times.” But the USCCB failed to agree on a statement to address the economic woes that still affect our country some four years after the end of the Great Recession was declared.
Our national economy certainly has improved since the financial collapse in 2008, but we are still plagued by high unemployment and increasing poverty which has created a drag on the nation’s economic growth. The ever-growing national deficit has created an obstacle toward achieving full participation in our economy. Our national debt stands at $16.9 trillion and growing everyday – meaning every U.S. taxpayer would owe $148,000. Nationwide, 46.2 million people or 15 percent of our population live in poverty, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the words of the draft proposal, we have a “wounded economy” which goes beyond unemployment and the national debt. There are still too many employers who have unnecessarily stockpiled cash and reduced their workforce. Many unemployed have simply given up and no longer seek employment, dropping out of the labor force entirely. Young adults on the verge of completing high school or college wonder if they will be able to find gainful employment, while those approaching retirement live with the insecurity of not knowing how long their savings and investments will sustain them.
The responsibility for developing a sustainable economy that provides for everyone continues to rest with our local, state and federal governments. Limited financial resources, though, are inhibiting the amount of aid they can provide to the most vulnerable in society. Our country needs to find the proper balance between economic growth and to attending the social and moral issues we must address as a civilized society.
Our free market system need not exclude so many. Just decisions must be made by government and businesses to provide for the common good, especially for those less fortunate. The common good, according to the bishops “is understood as the social conditions that allow people to reach their full potential and to realize their human dignity.”
Too often these social conditions are overlooked. Catholic social teaching states that all men and women have a right to the basic necessities of life. The plight of our current economy is not only about failing businesses, high unemployment, and a burgeoning debt ceiling. It is also about people who lead and operate businesses as well as our country. They are the ones we turn to for help, guidance and support. The decisions that they make reach far beyond their intent and too often the social and moral aspects are put on the back burner to simmer for a while longer.
Thomas Sweetz, M.S. is an adjunct faculty member of the Department of Business at Misericordia University.