Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What Can I Do? Three Steps to Reduce Income Disparities

By Father James Martin, SJ

Before I entered the Jesuits in 1988, I worked for six years at General Electric in their finance department. Before that, I studied at the Wharton School of Business, where I majored in finance, which also meant taking courses in accounting, management, securities, bonds and real estate.

Why am I telling you this? Not to brag, but to establish a bit of bona fides when it come to talking about the economy, about business and about work on this Labor Day. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, building on Catholic social teaching, which builds on the Gospels, has called us to work for a more just world, particularly in terms of income inequality.

But the average person, who is neither an economist, nor the head of the World Bank, nor president of the United States, might ask themselves: How can I help?
Here are few easy steps.

1.) Educate yourself. Did you know that income inequality in the United States is getting worse, not better? Despite worldwide increases in technology and productivity, the gap has only widened over the last 40 years. Here’s a statistic that might shock you. Three decades ago, CEOs in the United States were paid 42 times as much as the average U.S. worker. Today they earn 354 times as much. The rich are getting much richer, the poor much poorer. Educating yourself with simple facts like these can help raise your consciousness, make you more alert to income inequalities in your workplace, and help you in the voting booth.

2.) Pay a just wage.
That sounds pretty obvious. And most of us might say, “Pay me a just wage!” But if you are in any decision-making position in a company, you might ask yourself a version the Golden Rule. Are you paying your employees what you yourself would want to be paid for that job?

3.) Honor human dignity.
What does that have to do with income inequality? A lot. You saw that figure about CEO’s earning 354 times as much as the average U.S. worker. From my experience in the corporate world, I can say that this disparity sometimes makes people on top feel that they’re 354 times better, or 354 times more valuable, or 354 times more important, than the average worker. From there, it’s an easy leap to treating the average worker like dirt. The vast majority of people in the corporate world (in the world in general) are good, decent, moral people. But in my few years in the corporate world I saw countless examples of people being treated like trash, with less of the dignity that they deserve as children of God. The person may work for you, but they belong to God.

Finally, pray. Pray to understand the plight of the poor, the unemployed, the underemployed, and the overworked. Pray for a reduction in income disparities. Pray for a just world.


James Martin, SJ (Wharton ’82) is a Jesuit priest, editor at large at America magazine and author of In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.


Anonymous said...

Yes, obvious yet profound; however, I also feel the hypocricy of the Catholic Church speaking about this when we don't practice what we are preaching. A significant number of church employees receive government assistance. I am a director of campus ministry at a university, with an MDiv and masters in student affairs, and I haven't had a raise in 7 years. If I retire at 65, after 30+ years, I will have just over $100,000 in my pension. I was part of a conversation last week with other LEMs where we expressed concern that our diocesan director of family life will leave his job, ironically because he is getting married, and it is common knowledge that it's not really possible to support a family on a church salary. Perhaps the Bishops might consider just wages and benefits?

Tim said...

I love Jim Martin, but I found this post puzzling. The only practical things he suggested are voting and paying a just wage. The latter is simply not within the power of the "average person." The former is largely ineffectual.

Wouldn't donating or volunteering time to an organization that reduces inequality (for example, the Harlem Children's Zone) be a better suggestion?

Mark D. Bowles said...

Very important message Father Martin. Here is a related Washington Post article from 2012 that places more hard economic figures on this sad trend: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-leadership/post/crazy-data-point-of-the-day-how-much-ceo-vs-worker-pay-has-grown/2012/05/11/gIQArUISIU_blog.html

Thank you for your daily spiritual insight.

Mark D. Bowles, Ph.D.
Professor of History
American Public University System

David M. Smith said...

Educate yourself: Those classified as poor today have more wealth than all but the top 1% 4o years ago. The poor in America today have smart phones, computers, air conditioners, cars (with air conditioners), home ownership, plenty to eat, government subsidized education, government subsidized transportation, government subsidized health care, free phones, with free texting and e-mail; just about everything and more than all but the top 1% had 40 years ago. “The poor are getting poorer” is not an educated claim at all.

David said...

"Educate yourself: Those classified as poor today have more wealth than all but the top 1% 4o years ago."

David, you say this as if it defeats the argument that wealth disparity now (as in, at this point in time) is a bad thing. It doesn't. Sure, today's poor have more gadgets and things to distract them and perhaps they are less hungry than poor people in the past, but that doesn't mean they aren't poor now, or that they are getting poorer and more numerous. More importantly, it doesn't mean the situation is good, or that it shouldn't be addressed.

Social mobility in any country is a function of wealth equitability. It is a fact that the ability of a person obtain a different socioeconomic outcome than his or her parents is on the decline, and this is a major problem. It suggests that only the privileged enough get to truly choose their preoccupation, while those who grew up poor are largely consigned to remain so in adult life. That is not an America I want to live in, and I doubt it's one you do, as well.

kkollwitz said...

"If I retire at 65, after 30+ years, I will have just over $100,000 in my pension."

If I retire at 65 I will drop dead from shock; and I have no pension at all. Yet I am not expecting anyone else to do something about it, and am fabulously uninterested in how much more other people may make than I do, what their pensions are, or what their benefits are.

rtresp said...

People who are poor in America rarely own homes; if they do, those homes are in poor repair. Few own computers. That's why the computers at the library are always in use. And since so many companies now require that employment applications be done online, a computer is becoming less and less of a luxury. A phone is necessary in today's world for many reasons but often the only phone the poor have is a cell phone - no land line. Many can't afford to pay the electric bill for the air conditioning so every summer when there is a heat wave, some die of heat exhaustion. Those people you see riding the bus - they are the poor. And in many parts of our country where there is very limited public transportation, the only way to go to work is with a car. You may have noticed that today all cars are sold with air conditioners but if it breaks down, then the poor don't get it fixed. Plenty to eat is also not true and often the poor cannot afford the healthy foods. Free phones except for a very limited Lifeline exception is a myth -http://www.snopes.com/politics/taxes/cellphone.asp . Public education in poor parts of town is poor. Many of the working poor don't qualify for Medicaid. There is quite a bit of hunger in America. http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america.aspx

Unknown said...

David,I suspect that you have only read about poverty in America, but have not encountered it. Many hold your view. I would invite you to visit a Catholic Worker house or perhaps one of the places run by the Missionaries of Charity or volunteer this winter at a homeless shelter for families and listen to some of the stories. Perhaps your perspective might change?

Brian 33458 said...

If the middle class and poor continue to be stripped of any assistance when they have very little any way, the time will come when the wealth of the "Haves" will continue to dry up too. Who do you think buys their products anyway and makes the "Haves" wealthy?

Kurt said...

Fr. Martin, I am a great fan of yours and have been blessed to have heard you preach when I visit NYC. But your comments here speak to those who are not low and moderate income persons.

What is needed is for workers ourselves to be able to win justice for ourselves, not simply hopes that bosses will pay a just wage or honor human dignity.

While the Church has a rich tradition of support for labor and labor unions, the crisis today is that the Church is pastorally absent from the lives of workers.

In the past generation, the white working class has gone from the most Catholic part of society to the most secular.

John Scott Wren said...

This universal call to consider pay and prayer seems like a very effective program for fighting this problem, in prayer we will each be led to what we each are called to do now, and given the strength to just do it. Thanks Fr Martin.

My one suggestion is that pay be considered from the perspective of both the employee and employer. Greed can be a problem for both. And we need to remember Daniel Patick Moynahan's caution that a high minimum wage hurts the poor by "cutting off the bottom rung on the ladder to success."

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Corinne, you seem to think that anecdote is the same as data, yet all I would get from working at a Catholic Worker House (which I have done) is anecdotes, not data.

By the standards of even 50 years ago, there are no poor people in America. That's data. Perhaps you should take a course on data analysis? Perhaps that would change your attitude somewhat?

Adrian Yanez said...

How can I say this and remain charitable? Fr., The reason why we have income disparity is because of the debt based monetary system that we are all enslaved under. It is called usury. You'll find it in the list of Church teaching that no one pays attention to. In the USA all of our taxes go to offshore banks to pay the interest. So we borrow more money to fix what is left. This monetary system is based on an economy that never has enough currency in the economy to pay off these debts.

I am surprised that no one has ever explained this to you. Let us look to the Gospel on the matter. Why act are the moneychangers committing that warrants the rage of Jesus. Answer. They have cornered the market on the currency of the temple and are charging outrageous exchange fees for this currency. Nothing has changed. Christ's response was a quintessentially masculine response. Your response, not so much.

Saint Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evil. So he gives us a clue. Look for the people who have this love of money and you will find the root of all evil. You will find the solution to your conundrum.

Kindest regards,

Adrian Vincent Yañez

Unknown said...

"There are no poor people in America" is data?! I think you're confusing data with hyperbole.

One in four children skip a meal at least once a week. Telling your child that you have no food and that they have to go to sleep hungry is living in poverty. That's data analysis.

Who did you serve at the Catholic Worker House? Did the working poor have cell phones? Did you notice anyone with an ailment but no insurance to provide care? Did their job provide funds for food, clothing, shelter etc without govt assistance?

Unknown said...

You have not looked at the recent data on Poverty in America: The number of people living in poverty in 2010 (46.2 million) is the largest number seen in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published. In 2010, 22% of all children lived in Poverty USA—that’s over 1 in every 5 children. In 2009, the National Center on Family Homelessness analyzed state-level data and found that nationwide, 1.5 million children experience homelessness in a year. View the Interactive Poverty Map to find out what the child poverty rate is in your state, or states around you.

Sources: Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010, US Census Bureau; NCFH 1999

Poverty thresholds are determined by the US government, and vary according to the size of a family, and ages of the members. In 2010, the poverty threshold—known more commonly as the poverty line—for an individual was $11,139. For two people, the weighted average threshold was $14,218.

Since 2007 (the year before the most recent recession), the real median household income in the USA has declined 6.4% and is 7.1% below the median household income peak that occurred prior to the 2001 recession in 1999. This decline has been most significant in households in the Midwest, South and West of the country.

Food Insecurity
In 2010, the USDA estimated that 14.5% (or 17.2 million) of US households were food insecure—meaning that they had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the Federal poverty line.

No one wants to be poor and excluded from being able to educate themselves, their children and obtain employment to move out of poverty! None of these things will be possible until all governments, stop enacting laws that subsidize corporations and tax rich individuals less than the lucky employed average worker is taxed. All of this amounts to giving handouts to big-businesses, the wealthy and paying for same by penalizing and cutting social programs that poor people out of extreme poverty! These are basic human rights that every human being must have to stabilize themselves and the economy. Until this inequality of human rights is addressed by governments in every nation, the wealthy will soon find no one able to purchase/demand the merchandise that had made them wealthy. They did not become wealthy on their own, taxes paid to have police protect their factories; firemen to their help when needed; and all other social institutions that they used to succeed! The wealthy were allowed they benefit of equality to assimilate into the dominate group’s success; which has steadily been taken away from the poor. Yes the War on Poverty will continue to fail until inequality is address head-on and continues to breed extreme poverty for those excluded!