Crack the Whip – How a Child’s Playground Activity Speaks to Our Times

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Msgr. Charles Pope

Many years ago I heard an analogy for what has happened in this country and how the unhealthy patterns of the elite, the powerful, and the wealthy trickled down to the poor, but with far more disastrous effects.

The analogy was the game of “crack the whip,” which some of us who are older remember from the school playground. The “game” involved fifteen or twenty kids making a straight line. Each kid then reached back with one arm and took the hand of the one behind so that a long chain of kids now existed. The kid in the lead then took off running and everyone behind followed, holding arms. Then suddenly the lead kid would take a sharp turn. The kids immediately behind him could make the turn, but for the kids further back it got harder to hold on and make the turn. The kids at the back of the line didn’t stand a chance and went flying off the line, falling to ground with the centripetal force.

This is an analogy for the social and economic ills of the last sixty or more years. For there are some who are at the front of the line who are well positioned to take their thrill rides, engage in social experimentation and indulge greed and excess.

“Crack the Whip” is much in evidence in social/moral ills, such as indulging drugs, alcohol, sex, going in and out of marriages, and glamorizing all sorts of dangerous and deleterious behaviors, as well as in economic ills.

Those at the front of the line can afford the lifestyles that greed demands and can generally afford to pay the higher prices of an overheated economy and a lifestyle that increasingly demands and expects more and more.

“Gentrification” has accelerated, along with all the difficulties of social dislocation. Here in Washington DC the poor are moved to the margins of what many call “Ward 9.” There are only 8 Wards in DC, and so “Ward 9” is a euphemism for being moved to the margins, outside the city that increasingly loses its economic diversity. Once poor and working class neighborhoods now sport housing prices approaching $1 million.

Catholic parishes have used community organizing to save Public Housing and 30% affordable housing in the city, but every new project requires vigilance in a city that is committed in law but poor in enforcing the law.

It’s a classic case of “crack the whip.” Those at the front of the line adjust to sudden shifts in the economy and play the market, but at the back of the line the less privileged go flying off, staggering as they fall and off to the “Ward 9s” of our cities.

As a priest, I am not an economist, and I realize that economic realities are very complex. I am not calling for all sorts of government intervention, etc. But I do know what I see as a priest working among all social classes. I cannot and should not devise all sorts of policy solutions, I leave that to the experts among the laity. But what I can and should do is to remind the folks in the front of the line to remember the folks at the back. “Crack the whip” is fun and exciting at the front of the line, but devastating at the back of the line.

Somewhere we should rediscover the common good and look to our own behavior, wherever we are in the line. I am my brother’s keeper. His welfare ought to be important to me. It’s about more than money; it’s about taking care to build a culture that thinks more of those behind me, and those yet to be born. What of them? How does my life and lifestyle affect them?

 

Rev. Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian parish in Washington, DC.

Upholding the Dignity and Rights of Workers

A retired friend of mind is well known for saying “work was never fun…if it had been fun they wouldn’t have called it work.”

While that could be the mantra of AARP, those of us in the work world still know that, on days when we are truly engaged in our jobs, time flies by. That supports another saying I learned from the CEO of a large NY publishing house where I once worked: “Worthwhile work for which we feel recognized and valued ought to be fun.”

Photo of author Jack MurphyLabor Day was originally conceived to honor the contributions made by organized labor. Today, it takes on the wider tradition of recognizing the importance of all workers to the success and well-being of our country.

The purpose of any business is to add value. You take raw materials, either a thing or a service, and transform them in ways that will make them valuable. If enough customers think the product or service is valuable, they buy it. If enough customers buy it, that makes the company more valuable to stakeholders. Some companies, when they are trying to improve value to one set of stakeholders–financial investors, take the shortsighted view that they can squeeze expense out of another group of stakeholders–the workers.

If you are like me, you can sometimes become obsessed with finding the lowest possible price for a hamburger or a toothbrush. You may not think twice that the low price can come at a cost to the worker who created the product, that some of the “value” you’ve gotten means the worker may not earn a wage to live with dignity.

There are a growing number of companies, as witnessed by the Conscious Capitalism or the Fair Food movements, realizing that concern for the well-being of employees and the greater community is not mutually exclusive to shareholder value. You can create a win/win/win situation for all. These employers, Catholic or not, understand and practice the spirit captured by the U.S. Bishops:

“Employers contribute to the common good through the services or products they provide and by creating jobs that uphold the dignity and rights of workers—to productive work, to decent and just wages, to adequate benefits and security in their old age, to the choice of whether to organize and join unions, to the opportunity for legal status for immigrant workers, to private property, and to economic initiative.” (52) Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship

Last year, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) issued a position paper calling for all our employees to be paid a self-sufficient wage, which was defined as the level of pay needed to live without public or private assistance. SVdP president Sheila Gilbert urged the Society “to ensure that those employed by the Society in the United States be afforded the greatest possible respect and a wage that reflects our values of creating self-sufficiency for whomever we serve.”

As Catholics, our social teaching instructs us to care for the poor. It seems that we could put ourselves in a difficult moral dilemma when we say we care for the poor, yet we pay the minimum legal wage to a single mother trying to keep her family together. If our employees are concerned about where they will get their next meal or how to keep their lights on, how can they concentrate on their job? More importantly, in such situations, how can we say that we as employers are recognizing the dignity of work?

I know that this can be a difficult situation. I have spoken with many good managers who operate thrift stores and other enterprises that generate funds to help those in need. Many of these good people struggle to strike a balance between the mission–of generating income to help the poor–and producing enough profit to pay beyond the minimum wage. Nevertheless, everyone I discuss this with has a commitment to find ways to better live Gospel values and better honor those commemorated on this Labor Day.

Moving an enterprise from paying minimum wage to recognizing the dignity of work by paying a self-sufficient wage is difficult. It takes a strong sense of purpose, creativity, dedication, and faith. But, we should always strive to advocate for a higher minimum wage and make sure our priorities are in order.

Jack Murphy is a business professional in Atlanta, GA. He also serves on the board of The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, working on their diversity, systemic change, and advocacy efforts.


Read Archbishop Thomas Wenski’s Statement for Labor Day 2015 online English | Spanish

For Father’s Day, Support Economic Opportunities for Families

ray-bosharaIn light of Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about some of the good values my father instilled in me: to work hard, earn your way in the world, and save your money.

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.

What a Week!

Ralph McCloud, USCCB

Ralph McCloud, USCCB

What a powerful week to be Catholic.

On Monday, Pope Francis wrapped up his apostolic visit to the Philippines. We participated in the nation’s remembrance of the powerful preacher and civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We also marched for life, and prayed for that day when the rejection of innocent life will be no more.

If there is a thread uniting this week’s powerful events, no doubt it can only be the power of people to rise from poverty.

Pope Francis in the Philippines. A pastor by nature, Francis goes out of his way to be close with people, caressing them, touching them, and speaking plainly with them. His visit to the Philippines was no different.

But what was different on this trip was the transparent impact the people of the Philippines had on Pope Francis. The awesomeness of a vibrant, young and engaged church risen up from the pain of poverty and disaster visibly moved Francis. On multiple occasions he simply set aside his prepared text, overwhelmed by the sturdy faith and perseverance of a people knocked down by colonization, poverty, typhoons and hurricanes. Celebrating Mass with the people of Tacloban, devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, he asked forgiveness for having nothing to say in the midst of their pain: “I can only be silent; I accompany you silently, with my heart…”

For Pope Francis, poverty is where faith is tried and refreshed by the Cross. The poverty of words in the face of death and disaster, the poverty of a people beset with tragedy, are not without meaning. As the pope told young people before his last Mass in Manila, “Certain realities of life are seen only with eyes that are cleansed by tears.” Indeed, faith in Jesus Christ completely transforms these experiences. As Francis said, “Jesus goes before us always; when we experience any kind of cross, he was already there before us.”

Poverty is also the key to evangelization. Speaking to the Filipino clergy, the pope said: “Only by becoming poor ourselves, by becoming poor ourselves, by stripping away our complacency, will we be able to identify with the least of our brothers and sisters. We will see things in a new light and thus respond with honesty and integrity to the challenge of proclaiming the radicalism of the Gospel in a society which has grown comfortable with social exclusion, polarization and scandalous inequality.”

Finally, poverty is the key to our own evangelization. Rounding out his speech young people in Manila, he asked a challenging question: “Do you let yourself be evangelized by the poor?”

#ReclaimMLK. Many remember, and rightly so, Dr. King for his activism in the struggle for civil rights for the descendants of that archetypical American tragedy, slavery. Often forgotten today is the challenging trajectory of Dr. King’s activism towards the end of his life and his preaching against systemic injustice and poverty.

You may not have seen it on the news, but on Monday, community organizations across the country, including many groups supported by CCHD, took to the streets to reclaim Dr. King’s prophetic legacy. In the twilight of his life, with the US Government losing its stomach for the War on Poverty, King saw the horrors of Vietnam and racism as inextricably bound up with the plague of poverty. Though marginalized even by many in the movement for civil rights for taking his Christian convictions of peace and non-violence to their conclusions by opposing structures that perpetuate poverty, Dr. King dedicated the last months before his assassination to developing a Poor People’s Campaign.

That often forgotten legacy is the one CCHD groups marched on Monday to reclaim. We should all pray for their success.

March for Life. Finally, on Wednesday Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley gave a powerful homily during the Vigil for Life. Recalling Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, he related the struggle for rights then to the struggle for the rights for the unborn and the struggle against poverty today. Connecting abortion to what Pope Francis has called a “throw away culture”, Cardinal O’Malley said “today we also have to say ‘thou shall not kill’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have a throw away culture that is now spreading.”

The antidote to the individualism and alienation that lead to abortion, he emphasized, will be solidarity and community.

Ralph McCloud is the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the official anti-poverty program of the USCCB.

Loving Mercy and Doing Justice

Sarah Nolan

Sarah Nolan

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 (NIV)

As part of NM Communities in Action & Faith (CAFé), an organization supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Kenneth Servais and his wife Janice agreed to lead a parish group to collect signatures to place a minimum wage increase on the ballot in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They had never done anything like it before and were nervous about the response they would get.

Kenneth and Janice arrived to their parish of Immaculate Heart of Mary early, before the first mass, setting out clipboards on tables in the foyer. I could see they were nervous and excited all at once. Temperatures were on the rise and expected to be in the high 90s, but even that didn’t stop them from canvassing later that afternoon.

With their leadership, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish collected the second largest number of signatures of parishes and congregations helping in the effort to raise the minimum wage. With over 700 signatures collected, including from the former bishop of Las Cruces, Ricardo Ramirez, they and others were putting their faith into action.

A living wage is a fundamental right of workers and a moral imperative of employers. But I know that it’s not just one task or campaign or even the issues that transform and deepen a person’s faith. It’s the experience of having one’s hope renewed and helping to foster hope for others. It’s an awesome thing for me to witness. Those working to affirm the dignity of others are always affirmed in their own faith, dignity and worth.

The prophet Micah calls us to love mercy and do justice. Over and over again in my experience as an organizer, I’ve found that as parishes and individuals, we can easily fall into the habit of doing mercy and loving justice. Not a bad thing, but we’re called to carry out the more challenging words of the prophet, loving mercy and doing justice. That seems more challenging. Yet, in our baptism, are we not anointed with power and love to be priest, prophet and king in the service of God and God’s people?

I’ve been committed to my ministry as a community organizer ever since I was a Catholic Campaign for Human Development intern in 2003. I know that institutions like our parishes are ideal places to affirm the dignity of our communities. We need to train ourselves and our parish communities in the best practices of being prophetic witnesses and leaders in our cities and towns. Prayer and deep reflection in community, with brothers and sisters who share a vision of doing justice, keep us all grounded in a vision for a future not our own. This is exactly what groups like CAFé are doing in parishes. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development provides parishes and organizations involved in the work of mercy and justice the needed empowerment to begin and continue the work.

Sarah Nolan is a community organizer with NM Communities in Action & Faith and a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Go deeper:
Check out CCHD’s Internship Program.
Learn more about the bishops’ teaching on the Just Wage and the Federal Minimum Wage.
Visit PovertyUSA and PobrezaUSA to learn more about the work of CCHD supported organizations and follow CCHD on Twitter.