"The single most powerful word in our democracy is 'We.'" That was how U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez opened his speech to the hundreds gathered to hear him last month. He was quoting President Obama's remarks made at the 50th anniversary celebration of the events at Selma, Ala., last year.
The event that gathered Secretary Perez and a number of local elected officials was organized by VOICE-Buffalo and NOAH, the partner faith-based organizations that address issues of social and economic inequities in the Western New York area. His speech, and the topic of the gathering, was focused on the goal of involving all residents of the Buffalo area in sharing the benefit of the recent economic expansion.
Secretary Perez's emphasis on "We" echoed the plea of the first of two joint pastoral letters of Bishop Richard J. Malone and Episcopal Bishop R. William Franklin issued a little over a year ago. While acknowledging that Western New York "is on the brink of unprecedented prosperity," they also warned that "not everyone is benefitting. Blacks and Hispanics still live in poverty in greater proportion than do other groups in our population. ... And because some are left out and locked out, the rest of us are poorer. We fail to benefit as much as we might from this new golden age."
The bishops' claim about some people being left out is borne out by a January 2016 study by the Partnership for the Public Good. People of color have consistently been "locked out" of the increase in jobs in the area and "suffer from devastating rates of unemployment and a heavy concentration in low-wage jobs with inadequate pay, hours and benefits."
In fact, although the unemployment rate for whites in our area (about 6 percent) is lower than the national average, the unemployment rate for Hispanics is about twice as much (13 percent) and for blacks almost three times as much (17 percent). And both of those rates are higher than the national average. And, to add to the problem, people of color only earn about 70 cents for every dollar earned by white workers.
These hiring and pay inequalities have obvious consequences: they result in poorer health and education for people of color, they continue the demise of some neighborhoods while commercial districts are built up, and they will likely result in greater costs to all of us in social programs and charitable efforts. And, as the bishops point out, making sure that the benefits of economic growth are shared fairly is not just an economic concern or a business concern, but a "Gospel concern."
"In this new day we hope there will be plenty for everyone, that all will share in the bounty, and labor will be adequately rewarded. We envision a just society where the dignity of every human being is respected," they wrote.
The right to dignified and justly-paid work for all who want it has long been a theme of Catholic social teaching. As Pope Francis recently wrote in his encyclical, "Laudato Si," "We were created with a vocation to work. ... Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work."
The just distribution of the benefits of our "Buffalo Renaissance" must include providing living wage jobs proportionately to people of color as well as to white workers. That will be a necessary part of our moving toward the vision of Jesus of a "kingdom of shared prosperity, generosity and justice, a society that is more human because it is in conformity with the kingdom of God."
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services. He may be reached at email@example.com.