The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and President Barack Obama have had a rocky relationship over the past six years, with perhaps no issue more contentious than the Health and Human Services mandate, which has sparked the Bishops’ three "Fortnight for Freedom" campaigns. But President Obama’s recent speech at the White House Summit on Working Families provides a good opportunity for the two sides to turn the corner in the President’s final two years and work together on promoting an agenda that would benefit millions of American families.
If the Bishops hope to follow Pope Francis’ lead, fighting to undo the pressures and hardships that menace American families seems like an obvious next step. Pope Francis has constantly drawn attention to the impact of economic injustice on families, calling for changes that will give them greater economic security and more time for one another.
On both the left and the right, there is a growing recognition that families are facing intense pressures that are undermining family unity. Both Francis and Obama argue that no one should have to choose between dignified work and their family.
President Obama has responded by calling for a series of measures that will reduce that burden. He has proposed greater workplace flexibility, paid family leave, an increase in the minimum wage, increasing access to affordable quality childcare and greater protections for pregnant workers. All of these proposals align with the Catholic Church’s rich tradition of social thought and would help countless families across the country.
Obama even echoed a key teaching of the Church—one that Pope Francis has emphasized repeatedly—when he explained that “work gives us a sense of place and dignity.” Work allows people to contribute to the common good and use their gifts to participate in the creation of stronger communities and a better world. It can give people a sense of meaning and purpose.
Of course, people have dignity and worth whether they work or not. But this sense of worth and dignity is vital, and work allows many to have this sense and to live in a way that is compatible with that dignity. But it should not come at the cost of their family life.
President Obama noted that for many hourly workers, taking a few days off can result in them losing their jobs. But what happens when an aging parent needs assistance or a child needs help? Our responsibilities to our loved ones seem clear, but what is someone supposed to do when helping a family member risks creating an economic crisis in the family? If we value these family ties, we will work to eliminate such tragic choices.
And that also means working to increase the minimum wage. The Church has called for both a family wage and a living wage for decades upon decades. Church teaching demands that employers pay employees enough to ensure that their families have all of their needs met. There is a tendency to think of minimum wage workers as teenage kids looking to pick up some cash on the side, but many of these workers are trying to provide for their families. Progress must be made toward a living wage for these workers upon whom we all depend for our way of life.
President Obama noted that in 31 states, “decent childcare costs more than in-state tuition.” The scarcity and high costs of quality childcare have delayed my own academic and career progress, as I have chosen to serve as primary caretaker for my 15-month old daughter (which I find very fulfilling). My experience is far from uncommon, as many parents struggle to make difficult career choices, or worse, feel compelled to send their children to receive childcare that they know is not up to par.
While working at a think tank, editing, researching and care-taking has left me in a constant state of exhaustion. It has only been feasible because of the workplace flexibility I have in my chosen professions and because my boss is actually willing to implement the pro-family policies he promotes as a prominent Catholic political activist. But many do not have this type of workplace flexibility. We need companies to realize that these policies are not only about them doing the right thing for their workers, but actually result in higher productivity and lower turnover, as President Obama pointed out.
The leaders and members of the Church are the perfect partners in this push for economic justice and stronger families. From supporting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to minimum wage increases to a paid family leave program, Catholics should take up the battle to provide American families with the flexibility, support and economic security they need to thrive in the 21st Century.
Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, a PhD Candidate in Politics at The Catholic University of America, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. He is a senior fellow at Democrats For Life of America.