Social Security and Solidarity
Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee
United States Catholic Conference
September 6, 1999
The first Monday in September is set aside as a legal holiday in our
country to recognize the worker. This should be more than a day for
shopping and preparing for school. Catholics especially should use this
holiday to recall how our tradition has long recognized the dignity of
work and the rights of workers. Catholic teaching insists: "All people
have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages
and benefits, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and
join unions or other associations."
On this Labor Day Americans have much to be grateful for: economic
freedom, low inflation, and economic growth. But our prosperity is not
being widely shared. Too many have been left behind and the gap in
family income continues to widen. The top 5 percent of the population
takes a larger share of personal income today than similar people did 30
years ago, (a 16 percent share in 1968, 24 percent in 1996). While the
share of income going to people in the middle 60 percent has declined by
nearly 10 percent over the same period, the decline is even sharper for
those in the bottom 20 percent.This trend is part of the reason why we
need a strong, active, democratic labor movement.
Workers, particularly members of organized labor, have given much to
America over the last century. Through their efforts the great American
middle-class was born. Yet American unions never capitulated to the
concept of "class" struggle that found such fertile ground in the rest
of the industrial world. Union leaders instead saw their organization as
part of the American experiment in democracy and urged their membership
to seek social justice for all instead of class struggle.
Many of the values imbedded in the labor movement's search for social
justice reflect our own faith values, as we seek public policies that
protect and promote strong families, expand a stable middle-class,
create decent jobs, and reduce the level of poverty and need in our
society. Unions seek such policies even when their own members do not
directly benefit from the legislation. An early example of this is the
historic legislation that became the Social Security Program.
The nation is having a national dialogue on how to reform Social
Security. The U.S. Bishops offered their reflections in a recent
statement, A Commitment to all Generations: Social Security and the
Common Good. The bishops believe that Social Security reflects our
commitment as a society to ensure a minimum level of security for all
workers, their families, and persons with disabilities. It provides an
effective and dignified way for Americans to honor their responsibility
to provide basic income security and medical insurance (through
Medicare) for the elderly, persons with disabilities, and their
- Social Security has helped reduce poverty rates for the elderly.
- The disability benefits of Social Security assist low- and
average-wage workers often as much as, or more than, the retirement
- Social Security benefits lift over a million children out of
poverty each year through the survivors' benefits due them upon the
death of a parent.
With the support of organized labor, other laws have been enacted to further protect all workers and their families:
- The minimum wage act seeks to protect workers and their families from economic exploitation by requiring a common wage floor.
- The Earned Income Credit (EITC) allows low-income families to augment their income through the income tax system.
- The Family and Medical Leave Act permits workers to take time off from work to care for themselves or their families.
These laws, such as Social Security, are important to us as individuals
and to the nation. Most union members have labor contracts that far
exceed the minimum benefits established by these laws, but the unions
continue to fight hard to maintain their existence.
This Labor Day, we need to reflect as Christians on the values we seek
to advance in our economic and public life. We need to assess how often
the principles that we believe are vital to maintaining our national
commitment ensuring a life of dignity for our parents, ourselves, and
our children are reflected in the national dialogue over the future of
Social Security and national economic policy. In making this assessment,
here are themes drawn from Catholic teaching that are relevant to the
choices we face on the future of Social Security:
We must recognize our responsibilities to the elderly and persons with
disabilities to insure their dignity and worth so that they can enjoy
their God-given rights.
Because we live in community, our human rights are realized as part of
that community. We must all work together, across generations and
economic lines, for the sake of the common good, for the general welfare
of the entire human family.
Option for the Poor and Solidarity
The Biblical mandate requires us to care for the widow, the orphan, and
the stranger. Today there are still widows and orphans needing
assistance. There are also "strangers" to our community or to us, such
as persons with disabilities, older Americans and immigrants, who need
the support of their families and the community to continue to live
productive and dignified lives.
Individuals, employers, and employees, often cannot achieve security for
themselves and their families without some form of support offered by
the entire nation. This concept of social insurance is a necessary
complement to achieving that security for average and low wage earning
families. Government should participate in creating a comprehensive
program for insurance against illness, disability, unemployment, and old
On this Labor Day, we need to take our faith into the world.
"Catholicism does not call us to abandon the world, but to help shape
it. This does not mean leaving worldly tasks and responsibilities, but
transforming them. Catholics ... are corporate executives and migrant
farm workers, senators and welfare recipients, university presidents and
day care workers, tradesmen and farmers, office and factory workers,
union leaders and small business owners. Our entire community of faith
must help Catholics to be instruments of God's grace and creative power
in business and politics, factories and offices, in homes and schools
and in all the events of daily life." Catholics in particular are called
to examine their economic relationships through the lens of Catholic
Social Teaching principles. The Church asks Catholics to think about
public policy proposals not only from the perspective of their
individual or family self-interest but also from the perspective of
average and low-wage workers and their families.
On Labor Day it is worth remembering the role of the labor movement in
the passage of Social Security, minimum wage, earned income credit
(EITC), and other laws designed to protect all workers and their
families. We should consider how our faith can shape the values we hold
as employers, workers, owners, and investors. Catholics should join with
business and labor in legislative networks and other efforts to have
their voices heard as critical decisions are being made. Finally, people
of good will must continue to support a social contract which reflects
our enduring commitments to all children, all parents, and to ail
members of the one human family.
This Labor Day let us celebrate what we have achieved together and recommit ourselves to economic justice and security for all.
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Mishel et al. 1999. THE STATE OF WORKING AMERICA 1998-1999. An
Economic Policy Institute Book. Ithaca, N.Y.: IRL Press, Cornell University Press, 1998.
A Commitment to ail Generations: Social Security and the Common Good. NCCB/USCC, 1999 (Pub. #5-326)
Everyday Christianity: To Hunger and Thirst for Justice, NCCB/USCC 1999 (Pub. #5-116)