At this point in the pandemic, nothing should surprise us. Yet the employment numbers that came out earlier this month are head scratching.
First, the Labor Department reported that unemployment claims fell to their lowest levels since the pandemic began. The following day, the report of September job gains showed the slowest pace of growth in a year.
The decline in the number of jobless filings likely correlates with the end of federal COVID unemployment relief programs in September, but why are people not returning to work? The Delta variant and workplace politics around vaccinations are likely contributing factors. Then there is “disincentive to work,” a phrase that has emerged to describe the effects of inflated unemployment benefits, rent and mortgage payments, and other boosts like the Child Tax Credit.
Labor issues are both economic and political in nature, but they are also ingrained in Catholic Social Teaching and Christian theology. The Bible begins with God working: “On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing.” (Gen 2:2) Throughout the Old and New testaments, and then in the writing of church leaders from St. Benedict to St. John Paul II, the importance of work is extolled as both a way for humankind to be closer to God and to achieve dignity. Pope Francis has contributed saying in 2015: “Work is precisely from the human being. It expresses his dignity of being created in the image of God. Therefore, it is said that work is sacred.”
If work is sacred, then any disincentive to it would be rightly judged wrongheaded at best and blasphemous at worst. Providing routine payments in amounts that exceed the wages that a worker would make if they returned to lower paying jobs is exactly what that is; a disincentive to work. Nobody, from elected officials to charitable nonprofits, should engage in programs that make it more financially beneficial not to work.
There is, however, another side to this issue. Not earning enough to support yourself or your family is also a disincentive to work. If the enhanced unemployment support during the pandemic was calculated as the minimal cost to the average American to continue to maintain their lives, and if that payment is higher than what hundreds of thousands of Americans are earning in their jobs, there is a foundational issue around livable wage. The reality is that many of those who are returning to front line and entry level jobs do not earn enough money for basic necessities, especially housing. Based on figures published in the 2018 Self Sufficiency Standard, the widely accepted measure of living wage from the Center for Women’s Welfare, a single parent with a preschooler in El Paso County needs to earn at least $22.52 per hour to cover all expenses. In Douglas County that number is $29.78. Adjust for the skyrocketing cost of housing as a result of Colorado’s growing population and those numbers are most certainly low.
Employers seem to be catching on to the wage issue. Average hourly pay is up 4.6% from this time last year, but the gap between income and cost of living is still too high. Affordable housing is a place where both government and charity should play a role, yet the shortage still does not get the level of attention it demands at the local, state, or federal level. Similarly, helping to fund and support quality child care to reduce the cost burden will also help stretch family dollars and encourage parents to go back to work.
The time has come for able-bodied individuals to return to work. It is as important to individual dignity as it is to the common economy. The benevolent intent of the past 20 months, manifested in direct government payments and financial supports, have achieved their purpose. The energy and resources that were allocated to emergency relief during those discomforting months should now be focused on addressing the structural issues that COVID-19 helped to exploit. We have a livable wage and affordable housing crisis in our nation and in our community. Poverty and homelessness will continue to grow in our post-pandemic world unless these issues of disparity are seriously addressed and funded. It is time to get to work.