Labor Day Statement 1986

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

Family and Work

Cardinal John J. O'Connor
Chairman, Committee on Social Development and World Peace
United States Catholic Conference
September 1, 1986

This Labor Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the rapid changes in work and family life in our nation. The moral vision embodied in Catholic social teaching provides a framework for analyzing some of the public policies needed to address the important issues of work and family. The responsibility of the Church to address the new problems of families on many levels is clear: upholding moral standards and helping to shape individual moral conduct through teaching and pastoral care as well as providing services to families in crisis. It is imperative, as well, to recognize the Church's role in working for social and economic policies in support of families. What follows here is offered within the context of such a role. A much more comprehensive treatment is provided in the third draft of the proposed Pastoral Letter of the Bishops of the United States: Economic Justice for All.

Dramatic Changes in Family and Work

The past twenty-five years have radically altered many basic assumptions about work and family. Men and women can no longer assume they will have stable employment and family lives. In 1961 couples generally could anticipate lifelong marriages in which husbands assumed most economic responsibility and wives handled most family duties. Those arrangements were supported by public policies and employer practices and an economic structure that provided relatively steady employment for men in a growing economy. Despite the fact that throughout our history many mothers have had to support families, divorce and labor laws, pensions, Social Security, the income tax, and alimony awards were all predicated on the assumption that fathers would be the sole providers.

By the 1970s, the U. S. was exporting more jobs and less manufactured goods. As a result, many well-paid unionized jobs in heavy industry were lost forever. Between 1979 and 1984, more than 11 million workers lost employment due to plant closings and relocation. Wildly fluctuating energy prices first brought depression-level unemployment rates to the rust belt and, more recently, to the sun belt. Now the farm belt faces similar dislocation as economic forces displace families from their farms and force workers in related jobs onto the unemployment rolls. In short, many providers are facing greater job insecurity in today's economy.

While many men face continuing cycles of unemployment, many women have been caught up in comparable crises. Married mothers, faced with the uncertainty of their husbands' jobs and lower living standards, have more than doubled their labor force participation. In the wake of "no-fault" divorce laws and rising rates of divorce and out of wedlock births, millions of women find themselves supporting children on inadequate earnings, no alimony and little or no child support. By the 1980s less than 10% of American families had both a male breadwinner and a mother at home tending full time to the family. Now many children are thrust into a variety of fragmented day care arrangements of uncertain quality; many are unsupervised for hours each day.

While as individuals we may be aware of these dramatic changes, our social institutions have barely begun to respond. To a great extent our public policies and employment practices still reflect an earlier time when fathers were the sole providers in stable families. With one in two new marriages expected to end in divorce, with continuing cycles of unemployment, and with growing poverty among women and children, society has an urgent responsibility to cushion the shock to the victims and to deal with the root causes of the problems themselves.

Welfare Policy

One of the major items on the public policy agenda is the coming consideration of welfare reform. The question of work and family must be at the center of this discussion. Too often today the issue is phrased in terms of how best to get welfare mothers out of the home and into the workplace. Little attention is paid to the impact of mothers' full-time employment on very young children growing up in single parent families with few resources. Some proposals would even compel mothers to leave their young children in day care while participating in so-called "workfare" programs that provide neither the dignity nor the remuneration of real jobs.

While the ideal is certainly that children should be cared for in their own homes by their own mothers, public policy offers little support of that option for those at the bottom of the economic scale. What do we say to low-income mothers trying to provide for their children's economic and emotional security? Unmarried mothers who are poor are offered two choices. They can go on welfare and give their young children their full attention but with a standard of living less than three-fourths of the official poverty line (even with welfare and food stamps combined). Or they can leave the children in child care and take a minimum wage, poverty level job that offers only a slightly better net income and some hope for advancement. That so many mothers choose to work under such conditions indicates their strong determination to work for the sake of giving their children a better life.

What about married mothers? In only half the states can a family receive welfare aid if the father is present in the home and unemployed. In no state can the family get help if the father is present in the home and working, however low the wages. The system virtually pushes low-income married as well as single mothers away from their children and into the labor force.

True welfare reform must meet at least five criteria if it is to protect human dignity: promotion of family stability, adequate levels of assistance, opportunity for healthy child development, support for eventual self-sufficiency and humane administration. The current welfare system meets none of these criteria adequately.

Surely the sole test for eligibility should be valid need. Families should certainly not be denied aid because the parents are married and living together or when the income of a working father is inadequate. Parents who want to work should have access to job training and placement and subsidized work when appropriate. Job training should equip parents to support their children above the poverty level. Working parents should have access to high quality and affordable child care and health programs so that working does not deprive their children of these essentials. Mothers should not have to leave their children to take jobs or training unless the family would be better off as a result. Pregnant women should receive special consideration, with additional welfare assistance to meet their needs for appropriate clothing, food and rest. Benefit levels should be increased across the board and brought to at least a decent minimum federal level. Most current welfare levels are scandalously low. Moreover the administration of welfare programs all too frequently has been marked by humiliation of and perceived indifference to applicants and recipients. Arbitrary decisions, long delays, invasions of privacy and terminations of aid without careful review or prompt reconsideration have been among the problems crying out for reform.

Other Family Policy Issues

Further up the income scale, the options are not much better. While these families may have their basic needs met, mothers must take jobs for other important goals to be within reach: buying a home, tuition and books in non-public schools, higher education for the children. Despite the fact that so many mothers are working, the real income of average families has actually fallen. The economic data confirm the experience of many families — that even with both parents working, their standard of living is below that achieved by their own parents on just a father's income.

According to the U. S. Department of Labor, three-fifths of mothers of children under five have jobs. Most of that group have hurried back to work within weeks of giving birth, partly because their families depend so heavily on their earnings and partly because, even if they can afford to take a few months off without pay, they are in danger of losing their jobs. Losing a job and health insurance and pension benefits seems foolhardy to many in times of economic insecurity.

Some employers have developed innovative programs that support women employees in their roles as mothers, such as subsidized child care at the workplace, generous paid and unpaid pregnancy and family leave, and flexible and part-time hours. Such policies have been successful in retaining highly qualified workers and improving efficiency. But many women workers are not represented by unions, and few have such specialized skills that on their own they can negotiate adequate maternity leave or part-time work. Most working parents get no help from employers in trying to balance the competing demands of work and family.

In the absence of voluntary action by employers, what should be the role of government in safeguarding the well-being of young children and supporting family life? This country has a long history of labor legislation designed to protect working people and their families in situations where the record of employers was weak. Child labor and minimum wage laws are just two examples of the acknowledged need for government action when private employers and the forces of the marketplace fail to protect basic rights and human dignity.

Catholic teaching on the role of government in such areas is a rich resource that we should not forget. For almost a century papal encyclicals have defended the rights of workers and assigned to government a positive and active role in protecting human dignity and basic human rights. In recent years Pope John Paul II in On Human Work and On the Family has eloquently reaffirmed the role of government in this arena.

In the conviction that the good of the family is an indispensable and essential value of the civil community, the public authorities must do everything possible to ensure that families have all those aids—economic, social, educational, political, and cultural assistance—that they need in order to face all their responsibilities in a human way. (On the Family, 45) Our Holy Father has spoken many times in support of the idea that incomes should be adjusted for family size and in order to accommodate mothers staying home to care for young children. In an American context, this goal could be accomplished in several ways: paid maternity leave and children's allowances, as in most other developed nations, and a system of special tax treatment to offset lost wages of mothers at home. Certainly, public policy should support the decision of mothers to stay home when their children are very young. Government can also support that decision by ensuring that mothers do not subsequently pay a high price for devoting their full energies to child care. A fair allocation of pension and Social Security benefits and property for widows and divorced women and more vigorous enforcement of just maintenance and child support payments can help to protect mothers from poverty later, when their years of child care mean lower earnings and less retirement income.

It is important to point out, however that such a policy should not be accompanied by penalties for mothers who, for whatever reason, are in the work force. The Holy Father also warns against discrimination against women in employment and reminds us of the shared responsibility of government, employers, and the rest of society to see that affordable high quality child care is available for the children of working mothers. John Paul II has said that in order for the evolution of society and culture to be fully human, women must have opportunities to "harmoniously combine" their private and public, family and occupational roles. (On the Family, #23)

In the future, society, including government, will also have to increase its support for families caring for frail elderly relatives. This has traditionally been a female role; but with two-thirds of the women now in the work force full-time, some accommodation will have to be made for greater sharing of that role. Public and private support will also have to be provided for workers who must take responsibility for such care.

Too often, proposals for special protection for mothers and families have been resisted on the grounds that such special consideration constitutes discrimination against others. Yet the ultimate goal of pro-family policies is the good of the whole society. The health of the whole society is heavily dependent on healthy families which can provide care and support for the very young and the very old. Thus, the concept of the common good should not be lost amid conflicting claims for individual or group interests.


In the next several years our state and national governments will be making critical choices about public and private roles in the areas of work and family. Our long tradition of Catholic social teaching in defense of workers and families can bring to the debate a focus on the moral dimension of those choices. We offer that tradition to all, with deepest sincerity, on this Labor Day of 1986.

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