No $10 Dream: Rubio on Poverty

MW-BS170_rubio__MG_20140108104726I have considered Senator Rubio with some hope since he burst on the scene. Now, after reading his thoughts on the “War on Poverty,” at least some of what I hoped he could be has started to come to fruition. His speech didn’t just give me hope for him, though. If he is the real thing, he could lead the Republican Party away from their constant talk of protecting the rich from taxation and towards a defense of the working poor who’ve been abandoned by a Democratic Party focused on free contraception, gay rights, abortion on demand and the environment.

What’s more, his analysis and proposals for dealing with poverty in America seem to be a faithful presentation of Catholic Social Teaching. Whether he meant it or not, I do believe that they are more faithful than that which sadly passes for social justice in the Democratic Party in their war against poverty.

Rubio is spot on at the beginning when he speaks about the importance of the livable wage. This is exactly the language of the Church and its insistence on the right to a just wage, a living wage or a family wage. It is a wage which, as the Senator says, allows Americans “to live a happy and fulfilling life. To earn a livable wage in a good job. To have the time to spend with family and do the things they enjoy. To be able to retire with security. And to give their own kids a chance to do as well or better than themselves.” This language is very close to the language of the Church.

Rubio is exactly right again when he says that we are wrong to focus on the income gap. The principle in Catholic Social Teaching of the Universal Destination of Goods does not tell us that gaps in wealth are per se wrong. Rather, to quote the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

“The universal destination of goods means that all persons must have access to the goods God gives us so that all persons can reach their fulfillment physically, intellectually, and spiritually more fully and more easily.”

Poverty may exist, but the point is that the poor should have access to those goods which make it possible to improve on their lives. The language of the Church itself contains a sense of the movement of the poor from poverty to security. The poor must be able to “reach their fulfillment.” Rubio is on the mark, then, when he says that it is not income equality that is the problem in our nation. It is the “lack of mobility.” It is the fact that “70% of children born in poverty will never make it to the middle class.” That is the problem. And so he is correct that “we must close this gap in opportunity.”

Marco-Rubio-145012270-1-402He goes on to point out that the effort of the Democratic Party to raise the minimum wage is exactly the wrong one. He said, “Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream.” I should like to address the problems with the minimum wage elsewhere, but for now the point Rubio makes is stark and sensible. Raising the minimum wage does not, indeed cannot, address this problem of mobility in our country. It is not only not a good answer to our problems; it is an obstacle to finding the solution to them.

Why? Rubio hits the nail on the head. Large, federal programs that push a “one-size-fits-all approach” fail to account for the variations in communities, the differences in effective approaches across the states. Ultimately they ignore the principle of subsidiarity. Yes, “subsidiarity”! $10.10 an hour means something far different in Omaha than it does in Manhattan. Pretending this is not the case doesn’t help the poor and it hurts businesses as well as the young who are already suffering the worst unemployment rates they’ve seen in decades.

And though he doesn’t use the word “subsidiarity,” Rubio’s suggestion is that we reform the way we approach poverty in America by moving towards a system that shows greater respect for local leaders.

The principle of subsidiarity insists that larger organizations help smaller, more local organizations function in whatever work they must. So Rubio argues that the federal government should provide states with a “revenue neutral Flex Fund.” This would allow the states to “design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity.” The local community, after all, is more aware of what the local community needs. Here’s how he put it:

“It’s wrong for Washington to tell Tallahassee what programs are right for the people of Florida – but it’s particularly wrong for it to say that what’s right for Tallahassee is the same thing that’s right for Topeka and Sacramento and Detroit and Manhattan and every other town, city and state in the country.”

This needed to be said. Indeed, it’s been said before, but it needs to be repeated again and again. Subsidiarity must be factored into our considerations of solidarity. Rubio strikes that balance as later he refers to the role of the federal government in subsidies for low wages and other solidarity-building initiatives. He seems to have a sense of the balance which is necessary, a balance lacking in the initiatives that come from the political left.

Here, in Rubio’s speech we see a fine example of how authentic Catholic Social Teaching can be implemented. More of this needs to happen, and those Catholic Congressmen who are listening ought to pay attention to this sort of thinking. Appeals to real reforms that could help the working class are what will win the hearts and minds and votes of the many Catholics who are tired of a Republican Party constantly defending lower taxes for the rich. These reforms may also invite a change in those Catholics who have long suspected that the Democratic Party’s “devotion” to the social teaching has been self serving and empty.

Rubio’s suggestions may not be possible with a Congress as dysfunctional as it is. But it is a vision for addressing poverty, really addressing it, instead of engaging in the tired ideas which are received by others.

  • John Doman

    As far as I know, the Republican Party has defended lower taxes for EVERYBODY. Not just the rich. Yes, tax cuts happen to help the rich more – because they pay more taxes. You know, because they’re rich.
    Also, rich people tend to hire people. So if you’re really concerned about a livable wage for everybody, you should make it easier to hire people. Higher taxes always equals less jobs.

    • morganB

      John, the Republican Party has steadfastly defeated legislation to rewrite our tax code to remove corporate tax loopholes. I can’t understand WHY? It is reported that Warren Buffett’s secretary paid more Federal taxes than he did. WOW! And it is also reported that General Electric paid NO Federal taxes while showing $billions in profits. WOW again!

  • Antonio A. Badilla

    Omar, “The only thing I would ask of the bishops right now is how the federal minimum wage respects the principle of subsidiarity.” It doesn’t, and that’s why when the bishops speak on these matters, they lack moral credibility because a “minimum wage” and a “just wage” is not the same thing in Catholic social teaching.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Antonio, I’d like to write about the bishops on this issue, and I’m not sure that they lack moral credibility (that’s sounds too harsh to me, though I don’t think you probably meant it that way) so much as they lack some… I don’t know… seriousness. Because you are right: the minimum wage and the just wage are not the same thing in CST.

      • Antonio A. Badilla

        Omar, this is exactly what I meant. If the bishops echo Catholic social teaching on the subject of the just wage and the principle of subsidiarity, then they will have credibility though they might not be popular. When they echo Democratic politics on those same issues, then they lack credibility. The same with immigration issues. If they readily admit that every nation has the right to expect legal immigrants but fight for the human rights of all immigrants , including those that are here illegally , then they would have credibility, but when they talk about immigration and conveniently forget we are a nation of laws, they irritate a lot of us. Does this make sense to you?

        • Omar Gutierrez

          Antonio, you had me and then you lost me. Yes, if the bishops appear merely to be parroting Democratic Party talking points, then they would lose credibility. I don’t agree with their stance on federal minimum wage laws because they seem to have no rational behind it but that Democrats claim it will help (though perhaps now I’m being harsh). But with regard to immigration, the bishops are right on target. They do not conveniently forget about anything. I guess I’ll have to write about the bishops and immigration too, but suffice it to say, on immigration the Democratic Party only happens to be in line with the bishops and not the other way around.

  • Matt

    I’d rather trust Pope Francis on poverty than trust Senator Rubio.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Matt, so would I, but the Senator said nothing which the Pope should object to. So let’s trust both of them until the former disappoints.

  • Wendy

    A minimum wage is a driver of economic growth. Undercutting a minimum wage reduces the buying power of citizens. This has been proven over and over and over again in research.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Hi Wendy, I would agree with you if I thought that economic growth driven by consumption were a good thing, or even effective in the long term. But I don’t think it is and I believe that model is actually a violation of Catholic Social Teaching which condemns the idea of gauging economic health by how much people are buying. Consuming is not the measure of success for a good economy. I don’t want to play the “my stats can beat your stats,” but I will end only by saying that the notion that minimum wage increases necessarily drives an economy is not a settled matter.

      • Vincent

        I’m really intrigued by what you said in your reply to Wendy about seeking economic growth through something other than consumption. I have long felt that this is a weakness in both party’s approaches to the economy and recognized that it is incompatible with Catholic Social Teaching, but I don’t know the solution. What do you see as the alternative to consumption as a driver for economic growth?

        • Omar Gutierrez

          Thanks for the question Vincent. Instead of consumption or demand, perhaps the economy could be driven by supply and innovation? What is certainly the case is that the popes have taught that a healthy economy is one where the working class have greater opportunity for ownership of capital, not ownership of stuff but of capital. So employees, says Pope John XXIII, should be provided opportunities to buy shares in the company if they are only making minimum wage.

    • Antonio A. Badilla

      Sorry Wendy, but the minimum wage does not solve our economic crisis, it makes it worst. Small businesses might have to close their doors because they can’t afford to pay too much. Then who wins, the employees who suddenly have no jobs? Does that help the economy? I hear people telling me that a man can’t live in a salary paid by McDonalds, a married man with kids and wife, and as heartless as this might sound, I ask, “what is a married man with a wife and kids doing working at McDonalds with the minimum wage?

  • Rob

    OK, what is your solution for a minimum wage then?

    • Omar Gutierrez

      I’d encourage you to read what Rubio says on the matter, but I will point out that a minimum wage can be provided at the State level or by the city and still respect the principle of subsidiarity. Otherwise, wage subsidy might be the better option than a minimum wage. At least a couple economists have argued that that is actually a cheaper solution for the nation than increasing the federal minimum wage. Thanks for the question.

      • Rob

        You leave out the small but incredibly important part of subsidiarity that states that services should be provided at the lowest level IF the lowest level is able to provide such services. If not, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a larger body–i.e. the federal government–providing such services.

        You have to be willfully ignorant to ignore the states, led by the conservatives you fete no less, that seek to eliminate a minimum wage completely.

        • Omar Gutierrez

          I’ve left nothing out, Rob, and I think you miss the point entirely. The roles of the federal government is to help local governments provide for the common good, which includes just wages. You presume, however, that the only way to do this is by means of a minimum wage. Why? Why are the terms “just wage” and “minimum wage” synonymous in your lexicon? And why would the failure of a local government – not its not being able to do it, but just failing to do it – why would that failure justify a never-ending federal response. Yes, you’re right that the popes wrote that larger orders of authority could intervene. But when they do, they must do so only when they must and it should be short lived. You said it yourself, “if the lowest level is ABLE to provide such services.” The states are able, Rob. So let them, or force them, to meet the needs of a just wage, don’t take the responsibility away from them. That is exactly what Pope Pius XI said we cannot do.

        • Jeff

          If you are correct in your assumption that conservative led states would not treat the poor fairly, why are the liberal led states the ones in financial trouble now? Look at Detroit as an example of liberalism run amok! Giving people the opportunity to improve their own lives rather than supporting them and their bad behavior could be the difference in most situations. Opportunity is what had placed this country ahead of most of the world, liberals have tried to replace that opportunity with a minimum wage.

      • Sheesh

        The problem with that, Omar, is that we have an entire political party enthralled with an ideology that nonsensically condemns living wages, regardless of location. Considering the “least of two evils,” solutions on the federal level seem most viable to help the most people. While a locally-based living wage would be ideal, a national minimum wage hike is far more politically viable, and supported by Catholic bishops:

        • Omar Gutierrez

          I’m not sure what you mean Sheesh about the Republican party condemning a living wage. Is there a speech or a plank on the party platform that speaks of taking away people’s right to a living wage? Also, why is a national minimum wage more viable than the state level? Plenty of states have their own minimum wage laws. Lastly, I do plan on addressing the question of the U.S. Bishops and minimum wage, but I won’t do so now. The only thing I would ask of the bishops right now is how the federal minimum wage respects the principle of subsidiarity.

    • Antonio A. Badilla

      Rob, a solution is to allow the market to decide what a just wage is. People who work at McDonalds and other menial jobs have to understand that those type of jobs were never meant for a man or a woman to sustain all the needs of a family. People have to understand a degree is necessary to gain the type of employment that allows for a decent type of living and that menial tasks are temporary, not “permanent” solutions. As I wrote before, a “minimum wage” can drive employers to close their businesses and in those situations, the poor who had a job that at least allowed him or her to have an income, ends up with nothing and I don’t see how that can be good for the economy.

      • Bill Monteith

        Thank you Antonio. Couldn’t have said it any better. No one seems to be discussing the effect that minimum wage increases have on the small business, or even businesses where overhead and other costs make it necessary to control the cost of labor. On average, many fast food and even casual dining operations make a nickel of profit on a dollar sold. The economic is really simple and it distresses me when the USCCB gets in lockstep with this drive for a “living wage”, even when they admit that they have no economic rationale for it.

      • Omar Gutierrez

        Hi Antonio, I’m sure we agree more than we disagree, but when it comes to deciding what a just wage is, the popes have specifically condemned the notion that it should be simply left to the market and the market alone. Pope Leo XIII, for instance, stated it could be determined in cooperation between employers and a labor union with only limited involvement from the government. But leaving it up to the market and the market alone doesn’t fulfill the principle of solidarity and the responsibility of employers to provide a just wage to the degree that they are able.

        • Antonio A. Badilla

          Omar, “but when it comes to deciding what a just wage is, the popes have specifically condemned the notion that it should be simply left to the market and the market alone.” Could you point to me the specific paragraph in a papal encyclical where it says that?
          Also, I know Pope Leo XIII spoke about the right of workers to organize, but given the fact that labor unions today are a very different animal from the times in which they did much good, could we not say this matter falls within the “prudential judgment” aspect of our Catholic faith?

          • Omar Gutierrez

            Hi Antonio,

            I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to your questions.

            Check out Pope Leo’s Rerum Novarum #45 where he speaks of “undue interference” by the State, which logically assumes some due interference. Also in the paragraph, he suggests adjusting wages through a local board made up of union workers and employers, therefore not the market alone. Also in #44 he condemns the notion that a wage is “just” merely because it is agreed upon by the employer and employee.

            I should also point out Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno #88 where this is most explicitly condemned. Governments, or “public authority” as he says, must have a role.

            Then John XXIII’s Mater et magistra #18 where he writes “In the majority of cases a man’s work is his sole means of livelihood. Its remuneration, therefore, cannot be made to depend on the state of the market.”

            I should point to #335 in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church which actually quotes John Paul II’s Centessimus annus on what we should mean when we talk about the market. The market cannot exist on its own. But I could go on and on.

            As for labor unions, yes modern unions are corrupt and a distortion of what the popes have taught, however a right is a right. Not just Leo XIII but Pope John Paul II wrote about the fundamental right of the laborer to organize. That unions have been abused does not mean that the right to organize is now up to prudential judgment. This is the old Latin principle of abusus non tollit usus, the abuse of something does not negate its use. So, no, the right is not a prudential matter.

            Having said that, however, the popes do say that if a specific union causes harm to the common good, its efforts and even existence, can be curtailed by the State. John Paul II does warn against unions that have too close a relationship with a political party, which is the case today with American unions and the Democratic Party.

            So the right is not up to prudential discussion, but the application of the right can be discussed on its benefit to the common good. Frankly I think the teachers’ unions are a certain and demonstrable harm to the common good and should be dealt with. I support Governor Walker’s efforts in Wisconsin.



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