Beginning at age 12, not working and not saving were not options in my family, so I began washing dishes and managing the french-fry machine at the family restaurant in Akron, Ohio, started by my grandparents. When I was (effectively) fired for lack of interest and competency at age 14, I was required to find other work and was urged by my parents to start thinking seriously about college, since I didn’t appear to be good at anything else. So I pumped gas, worked at the car wash, sold shoes, and continued jobs like these over summer breaks while studying accounting in college. College led to a good first job and then—after public accounting didn’t work out for me, either—divinity school and, eventually, to more fulfilling work, marriage and three children of my own.
I took for granted growing up, and once I started working, what a rapidly increasing number of families today cannot: a stable family; hard work that leads to economic success and upward mobility; a debt-free college degree that leads to a good job; the ability to buy my first home; and earning enough to save for my own children’s education as well as my retirement. I came from a middle-class family, don’t think I worked harder (though I started earlier!) than those around me, and attended a public university (THE Ohio State University), so achieving a middle-class life as an adult didn’t seem remarkable in any way. Same for all of my friends.
Studies abound that this assumption of rising living standards no longer holds true. In my day job, where I study family economics, I came across a recent article in the Washington Monthly by Phil Longman who observes that, throughout our history, inequality between generations was large and usually increasing because each new generation did far better financially than their parents did. Today, inequality between generations is still increasing, but for the opposite reason: even though more productive and better educated, most of today’s workers are “falling farther and farther behind their parents’ generation in most measures of economic well-being.”
The numbers bear this out. According to Pew, the typical worker had wage growth of 22 percent between 1979 and 1999, but just 2 percent—from 1999 to 2009. A recent Federal Reserve survey finds that roughly half of all American families could not cover a $400 expense—they simply don’t have it, or would need to sell something or borrow to cover it. And, in Our Kids, Harvard’s Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) worries that America is rapidly dividing along class lines: the one-third of “rich” kids who are being raised by college-educated, married parents, and the two-thirds of “poor” kids being raised by non-college-educated, non-married parents.
What, then, can we do? The Church seeks to help families thrive by placing the human person at the center of our economic policies and decisions. We promote life and dignity in our families, communities, nation and world when we change policies that perpetuate poverty and inequality. In fact, if we do nothing, inequality will get worse: Economic, demographic and political forces have aligned to deepen already stark disparities in wages, income, and wealth.
Although not explicitly a policy focus for the U.S. Catholic bishops, I believe that one way to begin to address these issues is to urge Congress to pass the one with the most promise over time: setting up a life-long, progressively funded savings account at birth for every child in America, which can be used for college, buying a home, or retirement. By doing so, we can help ensure that inequality of outcomes in one generation does not become inequality of opportunity in the next.
Ray Boshara serves as an advisor to the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the U.S. Conference Catholic Bishops, as well as a member of the Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Join the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development in advocating for policies help poor and middle class families to access decent paying jobs, affordable housing, and economic opportunities. Policy advocacy is critical precisely because it is policy that sets the framework for addressing hunger, poverty, unemployment, and other important issues that make a difference to families everywhere. Take action now.