Neither Left nor Right but Catholic
JUST WAGE, WOMEN’S WORK, AND THE FAMILY
By Stephen M. Krason
We do not hear too much nowadays about the question of the just wage, and there is especially an aversion to discussing the effect that the massive presence of women in the workforce has had on this. Almost thirty years ago, Dr. Rupert J. Ederer, the senior Catholic economist and early recipient of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists’ Pope Pius XI Award, wrote that the conditions that Pope Leo XIII—and, interestingly, also Karl Marx—“denounced…where father, mother, and children all had to work outside the home to accumulate one living family wage” seemed to be reappearing. What he meant was that wage and price levels had adjusted to accommodate the fact that more than one income was coming into the household. While perhaps this has been an excuse for some employers to allow wages to stagnate, there are probably various economic forces that have responded to this new reality and created a spiral effect that has made the sole-breadwinner household difficult. This is especially so in some parts of the U.S., where the costs of housing are overwhelming. On the just wage and women’s work generally, it is worth looking back at #19 of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s first social encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work).
John Paul spoke about the need for a “family wage,” “a single salary given to the head of the family for his work, sufficient for the needs of the family without the other spouse having to take up gainful employment outside the home.” Lest one thinks that by saying “spouse” the pope accepts an equivalency of the roles of fathers and mothers, it should be noted that he also says that needs can be met “through other social measures such as family allowances” or grants to mothers staying in the home and that mothers should not have to abandon the crucial role of childrearing and education to go to work outside the home. John Paul was reiterating the same concerns that Pius XI expressed in Quadragesimo Anno (#71).
Ederer explained that what the Church seeks to do about the just wage and women is to insure that both commutative justice and social justice are maintained. Commutative justice directs that a man and a woman are entitled to an equal wage for genuinely equal work. Social justice—which is geared to upholding the common good—indicates, however, that a wage boost beyond that is needed for the fathers in the workplace. This is so their wives will be able to devote themselves to their children—the good of the family requires this, which in turn is necessary for the good of the political society. Ederer goes even further: he says that women should probably step aside and not even compete against men who need to support a family if the available jobs are limited. In order to take account of these imperatives of both commutative and social justice, public policy arguably should embrace the family allowance or other wage supplement approach. The question is how to do it. One needs to be wary of conditions that might be attached. For example, if government arranges for something like this it might mandate a certain kind of childrearing. If in-kind supplements, such as food stamps, are given, the problems of dependency and overstretched government budgets come into play. Tax credits might work, but the extent to which they would financially help a family might be limited. If government obstacles would get out of the way, it surely would be better if employers or groups of companies in one sector of the economy put aside the tenets of economic liberalism and just decide to do this.
Ederer even hoped that the time might come again when an employer could legally choose a married man breadwinner over an unmarried woman or a married one whose income is gravy for a family’s budget. At least, it should be accepted—legally and in popular thinking—that an employer is justified in offering greater compensation for the same job to a sole-breadwinner father with a wife staying at home with the children than a woman without those responsibilities.
Another point of John Paul’s is also pertinent. He opposes genuine discrimination against women in work—e.g., something like choosing a single man over a single woman for a job that the latter is clearly more qualified for—but makes clear that this involves jobs “for which they are capable” and that work expectations should take into account “their own nature.” The meaning of this—completely lost in our era of mindless egalitarianism—is that there is an intrinsic difference between men and women that must be taken account of in the realm of work. To be sure, this means that women have no right to work that requires intense physical labor—the considerably less upper body strength of women than men comes to mind here—or that could expose them to environments where, say, their reproductive capacity or unborn children could be harmed (this, despite what the U.S. Supreme Court held in UAW v. Johnson Controls, Inc.). Moreover, when one considers the expressions of concern by such popes as Pius XI and Blessed John XXIII about protecting women’s morals in the workplace, attention to the “nature” of women almost certainly includes protecting their dignity. Both the issues of physical stature and female dignity make one vigorously question whether women belong, say, in the military, even at the very time that the Obama administration wants to integrate them more fully into combat infantry roles. The Church, to be sure, has not issued a statement or document about this, but one recalls Pius XI’s statement in his encyclical on Christian Education of Youth that the military training girls were being subjected to in some countries in his time was “contrary to the very instincts of human nature.” Indeed, the contradiction between the routine concerns about protecting women and children in combat zones and having women as military combatants is evident. This is to say nothing about how the obsession with sexual equality has pushed aside the crucial question of military effectiveness.
Laborem Exercens makes clear that work is for the human person, not the person for work—that the person is the subject of work. It is in this spirit—and also, of course, because of the Church’s intense concern for the family—that the encyclical insists that women should not be placed at a serious professional or occupational disadvantage for leaving the workforce for a period of years to raise a family. Working arrangements should be restructured to accommodate this.
It should be apparent that all of these problems—attaining a just or family wage, eliminating genuine unjust discrimination against women in work, structuring work so that women can have a proper role in it according to their capabilities, nature, and family aspirations—mean that work and women’s—and men’s—welfare with respect to it cannot be left to unregulated market forces. Ethical decisionmaking must shape economics, as it does any other human endeavor. Indeed, Pius XI provided a remarkably balanced perspective on this when discussing in Quadragesimo Anno the considerations to be taken account of in formulating a just wage: the needs of the workingman and his family, the state of the business (market forces particularly are a factor in this), and the requirements of the common good (#70-75). It is the same kind of reasonable, balanced, just and charitable approach that should be used to shape policy and practice about the family wage and women’s role in the workforce today.
Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.
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