photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Reclaiming the Dignity of Work

It is hard to believe that as recently as February 2008 unemployment in the United States was 4.8%. A year later unemployment had almost doubled and continued to climb until it reached 10.1% in October 2009, and has hovered near there since.

Despite a series of unemployment benefits extensions, hundreds of thousands of workers have depleted their savings as they struggle to keep their homes and feed their families while looking for work.

Congress continues to debate how to pay for continued unemployment relief given the severity of the economic collapse. In April, the number of unemployed persons was 15.3 million; the number of long-term unemployed reached 6.7 million; and 45.9% of unemployed persons had been jobless for 27 weeks or more. According to AARP, unemployment among Americans ages 55+ increased 331% over the last 10 years.

This week CCUSA released our First Quarter 2010 Snapshot, which showed an alarming 61% increase in middle class Americans seeking services from Catholic Charities agencies. While that statistic alone may be staggering, our agencies also reported a 67% increase in requests for emergency financial assistance; 89% of our agencies reported an increase in client unemployment.

And many of their jobs are not coming back. Manufacturing sectors are shrinking or disappearing outright. The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday only once since 1948 has the U.S. shed manufacturing capacity on a net basis, and never by as much as it did since 2008. Technology has made other positions redundant.

There is no easy policy solution for helping the people who have been left behind as a result of the dramatic change in our economic landscape. Unemployment benefits were designed as part of the Social Security Act in 1935, with the expectation that other jobs were available. But the millions of workers who have been unemployed for months, if not years, will most likely remain that way even if the overall job market continues to improve.

Catholic social teaching tells us that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society, and that to access to those things required for human decency—including employment—is a fundamental necessity.

We believe unemployment insurance system and job training programs should be strengthened to provide greater protection against the economic loss that low-income workers experience as a result of unemployment. However, we are experiencing a dramatic paradigm shift in our economy. Since these programs were first developed we have transformed from an agricultural to an industrial society and from industrial through the space age to an economy where technology, not human hands, dominates.

How do we create programs and systems that are designed for the age we now live in and anticipate the nation we will become?

What must be done to restore the great “American Dream”: That if you work hard you can provide a better life for yourself and your family?

What can we do to restore the dignity that a good day’s work brings to a person, and multiply that by millions?