Monday, November 06, 2006

Ohio Catholics and Issue 2

Good article from CE:

For the past three Sundays, my Cincinnati parish bulletin has included a “factoid” from Catholics United for the Poor (CUP), which asks: "DID YOU KNOW THAT…? The current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour has not been adjusted since 1977, despite inflation. A person making minimum wage and supporting a family of four today, is 55% below poverty level. In 1968 the minimum wage was $1.61 and would translate into an equivalent minimum wage of $8.55 today."

The reason for this is that Ohio has a proposal on the fall ballot to raise its minimum wage, from $5.15 per hour to $6.85, and last June Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel J. Pilarczyk announced his support for it.

"Wages must be adequate for workers to provide for themselves and their families in dignity,” wrote the Archbishop. “Although the minimum wage is not a living wage, the Catholic bishops have supported increasing the minimum wage over the decades.”

Archdiocesan Social Action director Tony Stieritz has been lobbying local Catholics to “educate themselves about the issue” and vote for it in November, where it will appear on the ballot as “Issue 2.”

According to most independent economists, i.e., those not on a government or union payroll, mandatory wage hikes are job-killers. The logic behind this is simple: when you make the supply of something more expensive without a commensurate increase in demand, buyers — in this case employers — want less of it.

A study of Issue 2 conducted by the Employment Policies Institute concluded that its passage would result in a loss of almost 12,000 jobs and impose a $308 million hit on the already-struggling Ohio economy. But who it hits is even more troubling:

Most of the economic cost — $202.6 million — stems from increased labor costs for employers. A significant portion, however — $105.9 million — is the result of lost income for the almost 12,000 employees who will lose their jobs. More than half of the job losses fall on those under 25, and nearly one-third on those earning less than $25,000, adding cruel irony to the consequences.
In a pointed October 23 editorial, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Ohio’s unemployment rate is a full percentage point higher than the national average at 5.7%, and the state has recorded a net job loss of 150,000 since 2001.”

Mr. Stieritz has circulated an “Issue Discernment Form” in support of Issue 2 that encourages supporters to quote passages from the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novaraum, specifically paragraphs 31 and 32. Missing is a reference to paragraph 45, which states “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages” unless those wages are “insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”

How “insufficient” are Ohio’s wages? Even if we give the proposal the benefit of the doubt and discount its costs, very few people are falling through the crack the mandatory hike intends to fill. Northeast Ohio’s Beacon Journal reported last July that 98% of Ohio workers already make more than the minimum wage. Of the remaining 2%, many are employed in the restaurant industry, where tips easily lift them above the mandatory minimum.

Moreover, those earning the minimum wage by and large aren’t the “working men” Rerum Novarum sought to protect. According to John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis, they are overwhelmingly teenagers, and 90% of them will find their wages raised to more than the minimum wage in less than a year.

So in the end, neither the encyclical nor any other magisterial document suggests that Catholics ought to support mandatory wage hikes like this. Indeed, per the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2002 “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” they are precisely the sort of issues about which Catholics may legitimately disagree.

There is also a hard, partisan edge to this proposal. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Issue 2 was initiated by the AFL-CIO and national anti-business activist groups like Acorn.” Voters in five other states will also decide on a minimum wage referendum this fall, and “it’s not a coincidence that nearly every one of these states features a competitive Congressional or gubernatorial race.”

Why does this matter? The Church, as an important participant in the public arena, does not have an endless supply of political capital. Time and effort spent promoting potentially partisan causes means less time and effort available for other causes more central to Catholic teaching.

In a March 2006 address, Pope Benedict made a similar point. “As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the human person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable.”

The Holy Father then specifically addressed what those non-negotiable principles are: (1) “Protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death”; (2) “Recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family, as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage”; and (3) “The protection of the rights of parents to educate their children.”

Issue 2 is polling well and likely will pass next month. But I can’t help thinking that nobody wins if it does. Not workers in low-paying jobs that the hike puts in jeopardy. Not Ohioans whose business owners are now saddled with more costs and regulations. And not the local Church, which expended capital on a cause that is at most a judgment call for Catholics.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

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