[EDITOR'S NOTE: Between now and Dec. 31, Toledo Faith & Values will re-publish the 10 most-read articles since the website was launched Aug. 24. Today's article is No. 7.]
It’s a fact: Nearly 47 percent of Americans did not pay federal income tax last year.
Mitt Romney used that fact at a fundraiser in Florida last spring to weave a story of dependency. In his talk, which was secretly filmed and then released last month, his story was that these 47 percent are “dependent upon government.”
He tells his donors that these people believe they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” He says he’ll “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Another story can be told with that same fact.
As many commentators have pointed out in recent weeks, this number includes many elderly, students and active duty military personnel.
Also counted among this 47 percent are the nearly 30 percent of Americans who are low-income workers — people who work to support themselves. They pay payroll taxes, but they don’t pay federal income tax because their income is too low. This number includes many workers who are among the working poor
A different story emerges when we consider these low-income workers. The question is: Who is dependent on whom? These low-wage workers presumably have jobs because their employers need their work. In fact, their employers are dependent upon these workers’ cheap labor to make greater profits.
Romney and the political right call these low-income workers the “takers” while corporations are the “makers” in society. Yet it is these so-called “takers” who contribute to the ability of business to make money.
We commonly use the phrase “work for a living.” It implies that a person’s work should enable him to pay for what it takes to live — things like food, shelter, clothing and other necessities. The minimum wage in the United States does not pay enough for “a living.”
If business practices drive wages so low that workers have trouble providing for their families, then the social contract is violated. The social contract has been part of the fabric of society for a good part of the past century.
It’s a simple deal and one that most of us believe in: When a person works for the betterment of the community, that worker will be able to provide for self and family.
Yet with his 47 percent remark, Romney implies that neither business nor government should honor this social contract.
The right of workers to a just wage has been supported repeatedly in Catholic social teaching, from Pope Leo XIII’s papal 1891 letter Rerum Novarum to Pope John Paul II’s 1991 Centesimus Annus and beyond.
The right to a just wage flows naturally from a belief in the dignity of the human person. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asserted in its 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All :
“The basis for all that the Church believes about the moral dimensions of economic life is its vision of the transcendent worth — the sacredness — of human beings. The dignity of the human person, realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured.”
The living wage movement has been opposed by those who believe that the market should be free to determine what a worker will be paid, using profit as its foundational principle.
In his 1891 encyclical, Pope Leo XIII made clear that justice cannot rest on market forces alone:
“If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”
The U.S. Catholic bishops in their Statement on Church and Social Order in 1940 maintained that labor’s right to a living wage takes priority over any claim of the owners to profits.
Remuneration of work cannot be a decision left to the “laws of the marketplace” or the “will of the more powerful,” according to Pope John XXIII in Mater et Magistra in 1961.
The totally unfettered free market allows human labor to be diminished to the level of any economic input, subject to the same forces as a carload of coal or a truckload of widgets. As the Vatican II document Gaudiem et Spes (a. 67) asserts, human labor is more than a mere “tool.”
“Human labor which is expended in the production and exchange of goods or in the performance of economic services is superior to the other elements of economic life, for the latter have only the nature of tools.”
Perhaps it is for this reason that U.S. Catholic bishops have held that justice for the worker requires more than subsistence-level wages:
“Furthermore, a living wage means sufficient income to meet not merely the present necessities of life but those of unemployment, sickness, death, and old age as well.” (Statement on Church and Social Order)
When a person gives his full-time work without receiving adequate means to provide for self and family, something vital has been stolen from that worker. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the requirement to pay just wages under its section on the Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.
The federal government is subsidizing the labor costs of the employer. It does so by reducing or eliminating the federal tax burden of that worker or by providing subsidies for basic needs of the individual. Whatever aid the government gives is a subsidy to that business as sure as an artificially low price on a resource would be a subsidy. The market has depressed the price on this labor “resource” with the full knowledge that the government will help make up the difference.
If the 47 percent story is one of dependency, then let us acknowledge that those with the greater economic power are themselves dependent on both the worker and the government to bolster their power to make money.
Our hope resides in fostering a mutual dependence that respects the dignity of the worker and his or her labor. This mutuality is not guaranteed by unfettered mechanisms of power and greed. Rather we will foster this mutuality when we base our economic story firmly on the sacredness of the human person and the labor he or she offers to our society.
“Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” – James 5:4