“Where do you work?” It’s often one of the first questions people ask when they meet. Regardless of what an individual does for a living, work is a topic that is often evaluated against one’s dreams and expectations, a topic that invokes worry and stress, and a topic that occupies a significant amount of time. A job can be a lifeline, offering a way to pay the bills, and it can be a source of passion, something that he or she is excited to do. A job can give a sense of purpose, allowing individuals to use their creative, physical, and intellectual gifts. For the Catholic Church, work is a way for people to participate in the world around them and have a voice in the way society is shaped.
The celebration of Labor Day earlier this month highlighted the importance of work, especially the dignity and sense of identity it brings to individuals. This election cycle, too, has offered economic opportunity as a key issue for voters. The candidates at all levels of politics are currently laying out their visions of the country and its future. Michiganders are able to remind candidates of the need for politics and economics to “enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life,” valuing people over profits (Laudato Si, 2015).
With visions of what the economy should be also comes the realities of its current struggles, struggles which have become familiar for too many. Pope Francis calls attention to these in Amoris Laetitia, saying “economic constraints prohibit a family’s access to education, cultural activities and involvement in the life of society.” Lack of opportunities for employment and stagnant wages have led to discouragement and poverty. In Michigan, the overall rate of those living in poverty, according to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau numbers, was 16.2 percent, with the number climbing to 22.6 percent for children under 18. Detroit topped the list of America’s major cities, or cities of over 300,000 residents, with those living below the poverty line at 39.3 percent, while Flint topped the list of Michigan cities with 40.1 percent.
While declining unemployment rates in Michigan are worth noting — 4.5 percent in July 2016 compared to 5.2 percent a year ago — the pain of those still struggling in poverty and those who have given up looking for work altogether is still very real (U.S. Bureau of Labor). Young people are more hesitant to enter into marriage and have a family because they are worried about being able to provide for one. And for those with employment, long and demanding hours can conflict with the care of family members.
Yet there is always reason to hope. In their annual Labor Day Statement, the U.S. bishops speak to the work that is needed to build a just economy: assisting one’s neighbors, creating meaningful opportunities for employment, and helping businesses offer decent wages and working conditions. Every day this is happening. In the midst of struggle, there are individuals and organizations reaching out to those in need to help them make ends meet. There are those that prepare others for jobs or open up opportunities for employment. There are those willing to help young couples prepare for marriage and to help marriages that are hurting. And there are those that continue to strive to work, even difficult hours, to help shape the direction of the nation. May the Catholic Church and her people always continue to be agents of hope on behalf of their faith and the dignity of work.