Blogging for Fair Pay, Catholic Style

54561by Kate Henley Long

Happy Blog for Fair Pay Day! Though this may not be a holiday you’ve heard of before, today people all over the country will be blogging, Tweeting, and Facebooking in support of equal pay for women. The statistics on fair pay are pretty shocking: women earn 78 cents to the dollar that men earn for the same work, and minority women earn even less – 69 cents to the dollar for African American women and 59 cents to the dollar for Hispanic women. It’s as clear evidence as any that the interlocking oppressions of sexism and racism are alive and well in the United States, and a nagging reminder to those of us who care about social justice that something is fundamentally not right with the economic structure in our society.

That “something” that is wrong in our economy was the impetus, over twenty years ago, for the issuance of “Economic Justice for All,” a Pastoral Letter from the U.S. Catholic Bishops on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy. Though the letter was written in 1986, it’s still frustratingly relevant in today’s economy. And though its main focus is on economic justice for the poor, the letter is thorough enough to recognize that we can’t talk about “the poor” in this country without specifically talking about women, and even more specifically, women of color. “The past twenty years have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of women in poverty,” the letter states. “This includes women raising children alone as well as women with inadequate income following divorce, widowhood, or retirement. More than one-third of all female-headed families are poor. Among minority families headed by women the poverty rate is over 50 percent.” (para. 178) The primary reason the Bishops give for the number of women in poverty? Wage discrimination. They write, “Many women are employed but remain poor because their wages are too low…Thus, being employed full-time is not by itself a remedy for poverty among women. Hundreds of thousands of women hold full-time jobs but are still poor…Many women suffer discrimination in wages, salaries, job classifications, promotions, and other areas. As a result, they find themselves in jobs that have low status, little security, weak unionization, and few fringe benefits. Such discrimination is immoral and efforts must be made to overcome the effects of sexism in our society.” (para. 179)

The Bishops point out that the “something” that is wrong in this economy is that workers are not treated as people, but as commodities in the great process of economic transaction. When thought of this way, it is easy to argue that some workers have higher worth than others, with their worth getting higher or lower based on, for example, their statistical likelihood for long periods of continuous employment versus the chances of periods of inactivity (such as that which might occur following childbirth). The Bishops condemn this way of thinking, however, and unapologetically argue that the only just economic system is that system which respects and promotes the dignity of all people within it. “Employers are obligated to treat their employees as persons,” they write, “paying them fair wages in exchange for the work done and establishing conditions and patterns of work that are truly human.” (para. 69) The Bishops issue many recommendations for the U.S. economy, among them the conviction that “The first line of attack against poverty must be to build and sustain a healthy economy that provides employment opportunities at just wages for all adults who are able to work,” (para. 196) coupled with the directive that “vigorous action should be undertaken to remove barriers to full and equal employment for women and minorities.” (para. 199)

What’s truly radical about this document is the notion that equal pay is an issue that affects everybody, because as long as we’re living in a society that does not afford all women and minorities the full dignity of equal employment at a just wage, our society is unjust. Equal pay for equal work is a necessary step in the struggle for justice. As Catholics we’re called to be a part of that struggle – let’s remember that call in this time of economic uncertainty and restructuring and do what we can to advocate for economic justice for those most vulnerable in our society.

Kate Henley Long thinks that “Economic Justice for All” should be required reading for all Catholics, and urges you to (re-)read it today in honor of Blog for Fair Pay Day, and, while you’re at it, visit http://www.nwlc.org/fairpay/index.html to learn about the Paycheck Fairness Act and how you can talk to your elected officials about the importance of equal pay.

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