We hear a lot these days about angry Americans. I am not sure who they are, nor do I know all their reasons for being angry. Perhaps recent news reports offer some answers.
A column by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich highlighted income disparity in the United States. The CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, earns $36 million a year in compensation, in spite of the fact that in 2015 the company lost $4.4 billion. If the company’s board of directors fires her tomorrow, she will receive $54.9 million in severance pay.
Ms. Mayer’s earnings are modest compared to CEOs of other companies. In 2013, 15 top executives moved up to the $100 million-plus compensation level. The median pay for the largest company executives that year increased 13 percent — this at a time when average median annual wages for full-time workers in this country rose just 1.4 percent. We wonder why some Americans are angry?
Another news item — a StarTribune editorial — focused on people in Minnesota receiving public assistance through the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP).
Their monthly cash grants are $532 for a family of three, the same as in 1986. So for 30 years the assistance provided for the most disadvantaged persons in our state — two-thirds of whom are children — has not changed despite rising costs for such basic needs as food and housing. More folks with a reason to be angry.
Catholic social teachings offer insights for evaluating both of these developments: the people earning millions each year and those struggling to survive on income below the poverty line.
In 1963, St. John XXIII wrote that every person has the right to life and whatever is needed to live that life properly: “These are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services” (“Peace on Earth,” 11). Hard to imagine any family meeting these basic needs on $532 a month.
These teachings repeatedly make the point over their 125-year history that the role of government at any level is to promote the common good, creating conditions in society that make it possible for everyone to do reasonably well. It is difficult to see this being done in Minnesota when our legislators haven’t considered raising the cash assistance to needy families in over 30 years.
Catholic social teachings do not address directly the question of whether anyone should be allowed to earn millions of dollars. However, they do question the legitimacy of individuals possessing far more than they need when others lack basic necessities. Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel” reminds us: “The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges” (218).
Our church’s social teachings warn that if extreme income disparities continue to grow (as in $36 million vs. $532), the peace of any nation may be threatened. Again, Pope Francis: “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve” (60).
As Catholics, we can and should respond to these unjust income disparities. One way might be to press our state legislators next year to increase the monthly MFIP payments to needy families. Check with the Minnesota Catholic Conference (www.mncc.org) and the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (www.jrlc.org) for guidance during the next legislative session.
Another response might be to begin asking questions about candidates running for election in November: What are their views on the common good, on the role of government, on the growing divide between persons who are very rich and ordinary workers trying to make ends meet?
Asking these questions may be the first step to connecting our faith values to troubling trends in our country. Asking these questions may provide angry Americans a way to channel their discontent into a force for the political, economic and social change so long overdue.
Bernie Evans recently retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.