A Look at How Businesses Can Help the Poor
Businesses help reduce economic and social inequality by putting people before profit, and becoming close to poor neighborhoods.
WASHINGTON — Businesses can care for both the poor and the created world by making decisions that focus on the human person and not merely profit, said Catholic leaders at a conference on Thursday.
Business “must always strive to meet genuine human needs rather than feed a culture of consumerism, a whirlwind, if you want, of needless buying and selling due to the slavery to consumerism,” Cardinal Peter Turkson said at a March 17 conference on human ecology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace added that businesses “should always put jobs before short-term profits.”
The conference, a gathering of business leaders and clergy from across the United States, celebrated the 125th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical on labor Rerum Novarum.
Cardinal Turkson, addressing Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, asked the question, “Is business to care for our common home?” which he answered with “an unqualified ‘yes.’”
However, he added, it cannot do so through “business as usual.” Overconsumption of resources and an emphasis on short-term profits at the expense of the unemployed and the marginalized have imperiled both the planet and the good of the human person, he said.
“Some 200 years of business-as-usual, according to the technocratic paradigm, has brought our common home to the brink of both environmental and social collapse,” the cardinal said.
Pope Francis sees business as a “noble vocation,” Cardinal Turkson insisted, but for business to live up to this standard we must rethink our definition of success, aware that some of today’s business practices often lead to “widespread social exclusion.”
As an example, the cardinal pointed to a recent Oxfam study claiming that just 62 people own the same amount of wealth as half the world. For the poorest half of the world, their wealth fell 38% since 2010 despite the global population increasing by 400 million in that time.
“Indeed, the majority of men and women of our time still continue to experience daily insecurity, often with dramatic consequences,” the cardinal stated.
Businesses help reduce this inequality when they put people before profit, he continued.
“For sure, profit has its legitimate role to play in any business. But it cannot be the only role or even the primary role,” he said.
“It is not enough then to be a business innovator and a producer of goods,” he said. “These are worthwhile, certainly, only if they serve integrated ecological citizenship.”
“It is essential to produce good work and services which are truly good and which will meet the needs of humanity,” he added.
Businesses should create jobs which are “dignifying” to the employees. After that they can focus on “wealth which is truly good,” he said.
Other speakers at the conference agreed that businesses have a key role in fighting poverty.
Instead of avoiding low-income neighborhoods, businesses can be proximate to poor areas and “get to know” the people there, said Dr. Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The causes of poverty are “complex” he maintained, so businesses can help simplify the problems by being close to poor neighborhoods and communicating with the leaders of those communities: clergy, politicians, and other leaders in the community. They can create jobs and invest in concrete projects, cooperating with neighborhood banks, corner stores, and health care.
Businesses can also honor workers’ rights as recognized in Catholic social teaching: the right to a living wage, especially if workers have families to support, to religious obligations, and to families, like through paid maternity or paternity leave.
Reyes maintained that if businesses can work with low-income communities and provide work “in creative ways,” this will greatly benefit the family structure in the country.
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