Introducing the

Just Wage
Initiative

Just Wage Forum 2021

Criterion 2: Wage Enables Asset Building

A just wage offers disposable income, enabling savings and property ownership; provides benefits in the form of educational enrichment, professional development and skills enhancement; and promotes opportunities for advancement and income growth. Further, a just wage structure facilitates personal and community development.

What does CST say about wages enabling asset building?

 

Ever since Pope Leo’s groundbreaking 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Catholic social tradition (CST) has emphasized the importance of providing workers a high enough wage to accumulate savings that can be put toward investment for personal and family growth. As Pope Pius XI elaborated in 1931, workers are entitled to “increase their property by thrift, that they may bear … the burdens of family life with greater ease and security ...” 

At its root, this commitment to asset building is premised on the dignity of every person, who has a natural right to develop and flourish. As Pope John XXIII articulated in Mater et Magistra in 1961, “individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution.” But, he continued, because humans are “by nature social beings,” that dignity must also be reflected in economic relationships and institutions that promote not only a decent life now but asset building for the future. As Pope Pius XI aptly put it, workers are entitled to earn enough “that when their lives are ended they will provide in some measure for those they leave after them.” Asset building, in other words, should be viewed not only through a social but also an intergenerational lens.

Alarmed by massive gaps between the rich and the rest not only in income but also in property, proponents of CST have long argued against an extreme inequality that prevents savings and asset building by working families. As the US Conference of Catholic Bishops affirmed in their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, “[CST] norms establish a strong presumption against extreme inequality of income and wealth as long as there are poor, hungry, and homeless people in our midst.”

CST defines asset building expansively, considering not only dollars and property but also skills and personal growth. A just society demands a “continuous effort to improve workers’ training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive,” Pope John Paul II argued in Centesimus Annus, his 1991 encyclical reaffirming the core CST principles first enunciated a century before.

As Pope Francis summarized core CST economic principles in a 2013 speech, “A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.” Asset building contributes to that goal by empowering individuals, families, and communities to achieve sustainable, long-term economic security.

For a detailed exploration of asset building and CST, see Duquesne University theologian James P. Bailey’s Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition (Notre Dame Press, 2013).

Below you’ll find a sampling of official Catholic statements articulating CST’s commitment to a wage that enables asset building for the worker and the worker’s family. These are arranged chronologically to show both the continuity and evolution of Catholic thinking and language over time, especially regarding gender. Earlier CST statements in particular use as default the male pronoun, expressing a conventional (if modern) understanding of ideal households populated by male breadwinners, female homemakers, and their children. While more recent pronouncements reveal a greater commitment to gender equality at work, an enduring preference for the breadwinner model of one wage-earning parent and one (unwaged) home caring parent suggests unresolved questions confronting not only CST but all advocates for a just economy, especially amidst a social reality where two adult incomes are increasingly common.

KEY CST PASSAGES

“It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man's little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor.”

-- Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor), 1891(5)

“Yet while it is true that the status of non owning worker is to be carefully distinguished from pauperism, nevertheless the immense multitude of the non-owning workers on the one hand and the enormous riches of certain very wealthy men on the other establish an unanswerable argument that the riches which are so abundantly produced in our age of ‘industrialism,’ as it is called, are not rightly distributed and equitably made available to the various classes of the people. Therefore, with all our strength and effort we must strive that at least in the future the abundant fruits of production will accrue equitably to those who are rich and will be distributed in ample sufficiency among the workers - not that these may become remiss in work, for man is born to labor as the bird to fly - but that they may increase their property by thrift, that they may bear, by wise management of this increase in property, the burdens of family life with greater ease and security, and that, emerging from the insecure lot in life in whose uncertainties non-owning workers are cast, they may be able not only to endure the vicissitudes of earthly existence but have also assurance that when their lives are ended they will provide in some measure for those they leave after them.”

-- Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (After Forty Years), 1931 (60-61)

“Moreover, in recent years, as we have seen, the productive efficiency of many national economies has been increasing rapidly. Justice and fairness demand, therefore, that, within the limits of the common good, wages too shall increase. This means that workers are able to save more and thus acquire a certain amount of property of their own.”

-- Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (Christianity and Social Progress), 1961 (112)

“Furthermore, society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers' training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and of those on the margins of society.”

-- Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year), 1991 (15)

 

This page was last updated on March 15, 2021. It was written by Dan Graff and Anastasia Reisinger, with research contributions from Clemens Sedmak.

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