The discontent with the current economy is mounting. People have moved from occupying Wall Street to almost every major city in the United States and are even spreading to countries across the globe.

Broadly speaking, it comes from two sources.  First are the realities about the economy. The US Census Bureau report on poverty, published in early September, captures the situation well.

  • The poverty rate for 2010 was roughly 15%
  • The poverty rate has increased every year for the past three years
  • The poverty rate of Blacks and Hispanics was roughly 25% and for whites 10%
  • 2010 had the largest number of people in poverty (46.2 million) since poverty rates started being estimated 52 years ago
  • Doubled-up households—those with an “additional” adult who is not enrolled in school, not the householder, spouse or cohabiting partner of the householder— is 21.8 million, roughly 18.3 percent of the households
  • The number of children under 18 in poverty rose to 16.4 million, meaning that 22% of this age group was in poverty.

The second source is a sense of frustration.  It is the feeling that neither the state nor the financial industry are willing or able to respond to the situation.  The rest of the “99%” of the population feels left out and subject to the greed or incompetence of the “1%”.

While there is much work to be done politically and economically, I want to suggest smaller ways, ways from ordinary life, for responding to this situation.  I believe, in the short run, these ways can help offset our sense of frustrations as well as respond to some of the needs arising from the economy and, in the long run, form people to make choices that avoid similar predicaments.

In the Classroom.  Education plays such a key role in the information economy and is always strongly correlated with obtaining a successful job.  Teaching these skills is crucial.  Being a teacher of moral theology at a small liberal arts Catholic college might seem like a disadvantage in the development of apps and management of hedge funds.  I have a unique role however.  Because my institution requires every student to take three theology classes, I get the computer science and international finance majors in class and can urge them, along with all of the other majors, to think about how their careers can fit into the Christian call to love God and neighbor.  It might not have an immediate affect on the economy, but, in a few years, when they contribute to the economy, they will hopefully do so in a way that is truly good for people.   I have two ideas on how to foster this way of thinking.

  • Do Catholic Social Teaching.  Catholic Social Teaching has long been called a “best kept secret”.  I often wonder if it is more the “worst taught subject”.  The material is great but rarely do people attend to it.  I think this is mostly because Catholic Social Teaching is usually taught as a history course.  A better approach is to actually apply the teaching.  How is it that we should have a just wage?  What does this look like in a business?  How should subsidiarity and solidarity be practiced?  How is the common good to be preserved as well as human freedom?  In short, we should have students first “do” Catholic Social Teaching and not just “study” it.
  • Incorporate Service Learning.  I think this is an excellent way to get people to “do” Catholic social teaching.  One of my colleagues does this exceptionally well.  In her introductory microeconomics class, she has her students administer a local microloan program for a halfway house.  She thereby demands that they know their economics but also pushes them to think about how these skills might be of service to the broader community.  This way of teaching has several advantages:  it shows students the importance of the classroom material, they better master what they are taught because they have to use it, and it helps them to explore the moral and social implications of the discipline.  The more people shaped by this pedagogy working in our economy, the better chance we have of the economy being ordered to the good of each and the good of all.

In the Home.  Catholic Social Teaching always emphasizes the importance of the family.  Economist always point to family stability as one of the best indicators of staying out of poverty.  In this economy, family stability becomes even more important.

  • Care of the vulnerable:  Children are those most likely to be poor in our society.  Families should work to care for them.  Financial resources should be directed toward their nourishment and assistance.  This work should be considered a priority and should not be undervalued as a way of alleviating some of the most harmful effects of our economy. 
  • Open Households.  The economic numbers indicate that more and more college students are moving back in with their parents upon graduation and while they are looking for or getting established in a job.  This movement is frequently viewed as a sign of failure.  People, we so often think, should be economically self-sufficient. Yet, pulling together as a family, easing the transition into the work force, viewing people not as isolated individuals but part of a community of people, all make this strategy something to be looked upon favorably by Christians.  In his Sex and Love in the Home, David McCarthy termed these arrangements “open households”.  He suggests that Christian homes should prioritize how they care about each other and the neighbor, even if it means they don’t have the largest home, the best technology, or a typical family arrangement.  McCarthy’s analysis is much richer than this description, but it indicates how openness to those facing a new and different kind of economy can help ease some of the difficulties this situation presents.