When Blessed John Paul II visited the United States in 1999, he noted that the whole world looked to America as a land of hope, where people could, with little more than determination and a strong work ethic, discover their own dreams.
However, The New York Times recently reported on studies that show it is harder to rise up the economic ladder in the United States than in other countries like Canada and Denmark. The reasons for this are, unfortunately, all too familiar.
For one thing, better-paying jobs tend to go to the more highly educated. However, getting a higher education has become an increasingly more expensive proposition, with undergrads, not to mention graduate students, increasingly saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt by the time they leave college to look for work.
Even if poorer students were able to afford higher education and take on that debt, they are more likely to have come from schools that have not properly prepared them. Recent documentaries like Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery demonstrate the shockingly stark challenges that poor families face as they try to get their children into decent public elementary schools.
When it comes to high school, the competition is even more significant. Poor and middle-class families who wish to send their children to private preparatory high schools find these schools’ tuition prices skyrocketing. The average tuition for a private high school in New York City, for instance, is close to $40,000. The Big Apple’s market outpaces the rest of the country, but the trend is clear, and it’s a trend that increasingly leaves the poor hopelessly blocked from some of the best schools.
This leaves more and more families in competition for the limited number of spots at the better public schools. The days of working the extra job for the private-school education are over in parts of the country, a fact which reveals another problem.
While it is true that household income has increased significantly since the 1960s, for many, it now takes both parents working full-time jobs to reach that income level. Households may have made more over time, but individuals have not, and the breakdown of the family has only made matters worse.
Study after study has demonstrated the link between poverty and the breakdown of the family. Studies show that perhaps the single greatest antidote to poverty is a solid marriage. But with higher rates of deep family dysfunction among the poor and middle-class populations, more than at any other time in our history, one can begin to see just how difficult it can be for a student to find help doing homework or coaching for a test, much less a guiding hand through the storms of adolescence.
Not all the news is gloom and doom, of course. Relatively speaking, Americans’ lives are still phenomenally more prosperous and hopeful than the vast majority of the world, and certainly more than human history has ever known before. Immigrants continue to come to this country in droves for the chance to improve their lives. Still, the figures ought to give Catholics some serious pause.
The Church’s social teaching includes the principle of the universal destination of goods. This principle does not mean that all goods must be distributed equally in order to achieve justice. This is the error of some involved in the so-called “social justice” movement, and it is one condemned by the popes. Therefore, income gaps are not necessarily unjust.
What the principle of the universal destination of goods does mean, however, is that the poor must have access to the basic goods to which God has gifted us all. The principle requires that upward mobility is possible; that the poor can achieve the dignity rightfully theirs. More and more, however, a child born into poverty stays there.
Between a lack of good education, the breakdown of the family, high tuition costs and a lack of jobs, it is harder for the poor of our nation to succeed. This leads to the other great principle of the Church’s social teaching, solidarity.
Blessed Pope John Paul II taught in his encyclical On Social Concern that solidarity is more than just that vague feeling of concern for our neighbor. It is, rather, “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”
Rugged individualism may be an American trait, but it is not Catholic. We are all responsible for all, and especially the poor.
Political considerations, as the bishops tell us, must address not just economic inequality, but the very lack of access to basic goods like education and jobs. Policies that help to keep manufacturing jobs within the U.S. would go a long way to providing poor and middle-income families the opportunities they need. Addressing the poor performance of many of our public schools, as well as continuing the already great tradition of making Catholic education more accessible, can begin to address these problems.
This is not just a matter of government economic policy. There are deep cultural problems as well. Consumerism and educational loans have bred enormous personal debt. The dearth of “social capital” has meant a lack of skills necessary for building healthy relationships and thus healthy families. The example of strong families is more important now than ever. Volunteering to mentor children and/or their parents is a concrete way towards social healing.
Pope Benedict XVI would have us remember from his encyclical Charity in Truth that we must raise our arms to God in prayer for our society. Certainly one of the early and constant petitions for this year should be the wisdom to vote well and best inform our consciences, so that we might work for the common good with the full determination of a follower of Christ.
Omar Gutierrez works for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.
He writes about culture and faith at RegnumNovum.com.