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CARITAS CORNER: The Dignity of Work

By ANDY BARTON
12/20/2019 | Comments

The Trump administration’s announcement last week regarding the restoration of work requirements connected to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has added volume to a misguided belief around employment in our nation.

The complex and necessary debate over how to manage government benefits (and charity for that matter) with wage earning all too often degrades into an oversimplified opinion summed up by the statement, “They just need to get a job.” “They” refers to our poor and homeless. 

There is no question that employment is one of the key levers we can pull to help those who are struggling to achieve stability. The income created by work addresses one of the core issues for those experiencing poverty. Perhaps even more important is the understanding of the relationship between work and human dignity which is profoundly tied to our Catholic faith. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicates an entire chapter to human work. One of the major concepts is summed up in this statement: “Man must work both because the Creator has commanded it and in order to respond to the need to maintain and develop his whole humanity.”

Work is a powerful economic and social tool; however, it is important to recognize that a job is not a magic wand that immediately fixes the issues for those experiencing poverty. Complicating factors relating to physical and mental health, housing instability, transportation or the lack of affordable childcare are all real hindrances that impact an individual’s ability to work. Getting people employed must account for these complexities — it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Furthermore, with the cost of living steadily creeping up, especially in Colorado, not all wages can move people out of poverty or homelessness. If a person living at the shelter finds a full-time job at minimum wage, they still will not be able to afford to move from the shelter to permanent housing.

To be effective, employment programs run by government or social service organizations must account for the systemic barriers facing our poor and vulnerable while, at the same time, prioritizing the dignity of the worker. Pope Francis highlights this approach beautifully in his Encyclical “Evangelii Gaudium” where he writes: “(I)t is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for common use.”

Organizations that help vulnerable people find jobs must hold to Pope Francis’ high standard at the risk of doing more harm than good to those we are trying to help.  An example of one such misguided effort came to light earlier this month when the City of Colorado Springs announced support for a “work engagement program” that gets homeless individuals to pick up trash throughout the Mill Street neighborhood. City officials are providing support by passing along the money raised through last year’s “Handouts Don’t Help” campaign, which encouraged people to text donations to a city fund rather than contributing to panhandlers. 

At first glance, this program may sound laudatory. The city has found a way to replace two negative visuals of homelessness — panhandling and littering — with the politically desirable optics of homeless people cleaning up the streets. 

But the program fails to meet the standards of just wages as well as the subjective measures relating to the dignity of work. Homeless participants are not paid but instead rewarded with incentives such as lunch or forgoing lines for other meals which are otherwise offered at no cost. Job training should also provide a pathway to employment at a livable wage, but it is hard to see how picking up litter builds job readiness for any industry, including waste removal which requires a much higher skill set.

To be clear, everyone should clean up after themselves and there is nothing wrong with organizations incentivizing volunteers to do that work. But when doing so is characterized as an employment program, it sends the wrong message about the complex and important initiatives necessary to connect people with the right jobs. Only by acknowledging the struggles of those experiencing poverty, while honoring the value and dignity of work, can getting people jobs become the game changer that all of us want it to be.


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