Someone (Else) Please Help the Poor

I once contemplated writing an article on “How (Not) To Write a Pastoral Letter.” My model of how to write a pastoral letter would be Pope John Paul II. Instead of merely repeating contemporary partisan arguments and then taking one side or the other, using cherry-picked passages from the Scriptures or Church documents to insist that one party in the debate “fails to meet a moral test” or “cannot be reconciled with Church teaching,” John Paul II more often refined and focused the debate by questioning the terms and categories we use to think about the issue. Instead of entering the old “communism” versus “capitalism” debate in the usual way, for example, John Paul II critiqued both positions and suggested new ways to think about work and the economy.

Consider the confusions we face today when people hear the message that we need a “fairer” economy that does more to “help the poor.” If we begin with the notion that “fairness” means I get to keep what I earn, then it is entirely possible to derive from this premise the conclusion that taxes should be kept low. If we begin with the notion that “fairness” means the goods of society should be spread equally among all the members, it is entirely possible to derive from that premise the conclusion that taxes should be raised.

Terrible misunderstandings can result when both sides are arguing about what is “fair” not realizing that they are using the term in entirely different ways – indeed in two ways that are mutually contradictory. If I get to keep what I earn, then it is not spread equally among everyone; and if the goods of society are supposed to be spread equally among everyone, then those who make more will not get to keep all they earn.

John Paul II by Yousuf Karsh, 1979

What one side calls “fair” is precisely what the other side would describe as “unfair.” If Silicon Valley billionaires get to keep all their billions, some people would protest that this “unfair.” If the government taxes these people to give it to people who earned less, another group will complain that this is “unfair.” Both groups use the same word, but with entirely different meanings.

A further difficulty arises if we find in ourselves both notions of “fairness” operating independently, so that, in some moments and some circumstances, we express a deep desire to keep whatever we work for, and in other moments and circumstances, are convinced that the goods of society should be spread around “more fairly.” The result is often the conviction, not that I should do more, but that “the rich” (meaning those who make more money than I do) should “do more” to “help the poor.”

Studies find that 27 percent of all households in the United States making more than $100,000 a year say they cannot afford to buy everything they really need, while nearly 20 percent say they “spend nearly all their income on the basic necessities of life.” And 35 percent of survey respondents report that they would like someday to be in the “really made it” group, a category representing the top 6 percent of earners in American society.” Meanwhile, 49 percent said they aspired to be in the “doing very well” group – namely, somewhere among the next 12 percent of earners. So taken together, 85 percent of Americans said they wanted to be in the top 18 percent of earners, while only 15 percent said they would be satisfied ending up as “middle-class.” Given this, we will likely not be able to get “the rich” to “do more,” since almost no one in one of the richest countries in the world feels “rich.”

So too, when upper-middle-class people discover how many lower income families do not deny themselves expensive consumer items, they start to doubt the claim that they are “poor.” Sociological studies suggest that consumer items provide people a sense of identity, a sense of “belonging” and of being a somebody rather than a nobody. So it is hard to imagine that those at the lowest end of the income scale, who are most likely to be viewed as “unsuccessful” and “not having done anything with their lives,” would entirely forego the sense of being a somebody, which ownership of consumer items promises to provide.

So when a discussion about “justice” for “poor people” in America reaches the conclusion that “rich people should do more,” this may well be true, but the conclusion is not entirely helpful if the interlocutors haven’t a clear idea (a) what they mean by “poor” (are people with large-screen televisions “poor”?), (b) what they mean by “rich” (are people making $200,000 per year, who say they can’t afford everything they really need, “rich”?) and (c) what they mean by “justice” (people keep what they earn, or spread it around equally?)

What kind of a horrible person and terrible Catholic would I be if I didn’t say I wanted a “fairer economy” that does more to help the poor? Really terrible. So I will say it: We need a “fairer economy” that does more to help the poor.

One group will read that and say, “Exactly! We need to cut taxes so the economy will improve and the poor will benefit.” Others will reply: “Exactly! We need to raise taxes on the rich to provide more for the poor.” I could choose one side and scold the others as immoral and un-Catholic. But my best bet might be to just keep my mouth shut and shake my head yes. I look good to both sides, and I refrain from talking about complex economic matters about which I have little or no expertise. But what fun would that be?

The John Paul II strategy would be to try to help clarify the terms of the debate to help both sides deliberate more clearly about something they think they’re discussing but really aren’t.

Less self-righteous fun; fewer partisan brownie points; but maybe better long-term results.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.