Resentment

The Working Catholic
by William Droel

Following each presidential election, a cottage industry of analysis appears—maps, tables, articles and books. This time around the industry is mansion-sized; it is huge, I tell you. Resentment is mentioned as a factor in some election commentaries. (Though written before the election, The Politics of Resentment by Jeremy Engels is particularly insightful.)
Resentment is unrefined reaction to loss. Let’s face it, things are dying—slowly or maybe quickly. Perhaps it is a fading dream parents have for their children; that their young adults will get a college degree and enjoy a professional career. Perhaps it is a lowered opinion one has for the neighborhood; the past was great, but not now. Perhaps it is the seemingly random illness afflicting one’s spouse. Perhaps it is even awareness of one’s own mortality.
When the grief that comes from such inevitable losses is left unprocessed, the door to resentment opens. Resentment, by the way, is new to the modern age. People have always bemoaned their situation and have long suspected that the rich or the good looking did something bad to have it better off. That is called jealously and envy. But resentment admires up and blames down.
Resentful thinking usually concludes that wealthy families worked hard, just as did those who mined natural resources, toiled in a factory, labored on a farm or tended to a town’s needs in an honest small business. Hard work is a common phrase in resentful thinking. And, according to the original dream, hard work yields success. And when it doesn’t, resentful thinking looks around (but generally does not look up) for a flaw. Resentment blames down. There is, this thinking continues, a group just below people like us that gets ahead undeservedly and even gets ahead at our expense. Left alone, resentment settles into low burn anger, a murky fear, a dragging suspicion. Every now and then it finds expression in the corner bar or at a family gathering. But left alone, resentment is incapable of building an organizational alternative to what feels wrong.
Resentment is like an addiction, explains Fr. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996). It is not an effective posture; it only pulls down. “Resentment is the paralyzed complaint,” he writes. It is parasitical because its anger is directed scattershot at institutions (the government, the media, the environmental movement, the church) “on which you have made yourself totally dependent without being able to do anything about it.”
Of course, local and national figures can play on a group’s resentment by promising a vague alternative to the status quo. However, no lasting reform policy or improved organization comes from the promise, only more alienation. When resentment gels around a public figure, it becomes more strident, righteous and pessimistic. It accomplishes the opposite of what it intends.

Resentment is not the only possible reaction to loss. The alternative is processed grief, creative forbearance and strategic anger or cold anger. It is a deliberate process of naming the loss and doing something good in order to give meaning to the seemingly senseless. It is, as young adults now say, paying it forward. This alternative, perhaps surprisingly, presupposes resentment’s opposite: gratitude. Dealing positively with loss is based on the belief that the world is an undeserved blessing. Gratitude comes from a confident belief that our common life makes sense, no matter how things turn out.
Gratitude, in this context, is not merely the child’s good habit of thanking people for kindnesses. It is not simply politeness. This is a public gratitude. It is a lifestyle, or better yet a culture, patterned on gift exchange or reciprocity. And although cynics do not see it, there is already a gratitude economy and gratitude politics weaving in and out and around our global capital economy. To be continued…

Droel edits a printed newsletter about faith and work: INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Benign Neglect

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Nearly every business leader agrees with the idea of corporate responsibility, said Stefano Zamagni at a Catholic Social Tradition conference held at University of Notre Dame late this March. To the extent that they know about Catholic doctrine, every Catholic business leader accepts our social doctrine. It would be the rare executive or board trustee who says, “I oppose corporate responsibility.” Or the rare Catholic in business who says, “I dissent from Catholic doctrine.”
However, behavior is different from language, continued Zamagni, who teaches at University of Bologna and who advises the Vatican. Many companies and executives (with exceptions) practice “moral disengagement.” They know how to neglect or turn off true moral standards. In other words, “they know how to make excuses,” said Zamagni.

The default position for business is utilitarianism or simple efficiency. A decision is proper if at the end of each day (or at the end of the fiscal year), that decision has produced more good than bad. Good decisions are those that create the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
“Utilitarianism is not an economic theory,” said Zamagni. It is not an objective morality. A business leader who uses this default method presumes that she can mathematically calculate good and bad outcomes. She brings her subjective opinions to a moral matter.

Here is an example. According to our 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, a just wage cannot merely be an “agreement between the parties,” between the employer and employee. Such an agreement, even when signed by the employee, “is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.”
Oh come on, many Catholic businesspeople will moan. The employee exercised freedom of choice. The agreement is binding. Not so fast, said Zamagni. In many situations, including in the restaurant industry or at a bank, the employee cannot freely consent to the consequences of the pay rate because the wage structure rules were made by someone else. Maybe it wasn’t the manager of this or that restaurant; maybe not the local bank manager. But someone else (a multitude of others) brought their subjective opinion about outcomes to the wage structure.
The justice of a wage must be objectively determined, the Catechism says. Even within “the provisions of civil law,” employers can be morally guilty of exploitation in paying less than a family wage.

Here is a second example of moral disengagement. A religious order sponsors a Catholic institution, administered by a board and some executives. None of these people would ever say, “We don’t believe in Catholic doctrine.” Now, let’s say, some employees within the institution express interest in a union. Many of the leaders of that institution suddenly express a negative opinion about unions: “The Catholic doctrine is fine, but the union you are considering is not a proper fit.” Or: “When Pope/Saint John Paul II (1920-2005) devoted an entire encyclical to labor relations, he meant Poland not the United States.” Or: “Our religious order supports workers in Latin America but we know best when it comes to our students or our patients in the United States.” Those leaders (who are exemplary people in their private life) know how to, in Zamagni’s phrase, “turn off deterrents” and assert their calculated yet subjective opinion.

Catholic moral living is not easy because it is not based on what one feels or one assumes or one calculates. It is based on God’s objective revelation—which admittedly has to be applied with prudence in difficult situations.

For more on the Notre Dame conference, check out its Center for Social Concerns (www.socialconcerns.nd.edu).

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work for NCL (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Lent Reading

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday this year. Thus, several Illinois bishops (though not all) and other bishops elsewhere “granted a dispensation” so that the faithful could thereby have corned beef on the feast. (Is there any evidence that workaday Catholics are incapable of making such decisions on their own? I met no such person during my evening out.)
By way of two bishops, here is an alternative to fretting about shamrocks and dispensations. Pope Francis suggests we read On Naboth by St. Ambrose (340-397), bishop of Milan. It is a 32-page commentary on a parable recounted in First Kings 21. St. Ambrose invites us to consider fasting in a more substantial manner than foregoing meat on seven days each spring—only six days if St. Patrick or St. Joseph intercedes.

St. Ambrose does not have to search far in Scripture to conclude that God is not interested in superficial fasting. “The fast that I have chosen,” as St. Ambrose paraphrases God, is to “undo every tie of injustice, loose the bonds of contracts made under duress, set free the broken and break every unjust obligation. Break your bread for the hungry and bring the needy and homeless into your house.”
St. Ambrose continues with a saying that is often reprinted: “Nature, then, knows no distinction when we are born, and it knows none when we die. It creates all alike, and all alike it encloses in the bowels of the tomb.” Go to any cemetery. “Open up the earth and [see] if you are able [to] discern who is rich. Then clear away the rubbish and [see] if you [can] recognize the poor person.”
As for the Old Testament story in First Kings, St. Ambrose cuts no slack for King Ahab, who perhaps had an advance copy of The Art of the Deal. Ahab seems to offer Naboth a deal for his vineyard. I’ll give you either a different vineyard or cash, says Ahab.
St. Ambrose is not fooled. It is arrogance, writes St. Ambrose. Give me, Ahab says. For what purpose? “All this madness, all this uproar, then, was in order to find space for paltry herbs. It is not, therefore, that you [Ahab] desire to possess something useful for yourself so much as it is that you want to exclude others… The rich man cries out that he does not have.”
The First Kings story, St. Ambrose concludes, “is repeated everyday” as we in our dissatisfaction covet other people’s goods.

It is not too late to adopt a Lent discipline. We can try to fast from envy and greed. We can try to be rich in contentment; not only between now and April 16, 2017. But we can practice contentment every day until that day when our last mortal possession is taken to a cemetery to join all the other look-alikes.
It wouldn’t hurt these Lent days and in the coming months to also give something away. Here St. Ambrose has a final piece of advice. “You are commonly in the habit of saying: We ought not to give to someone whom God has cursed by desiring him to be poor.” Or as this is expressed in the United States: We should refrain from helping the undeserving poor. There are no cursed poor, St. Ambrose concludes. There is no divine distinction between the deserving and undeserving. Read the Scripture: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter.

Urban Holiness

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Children in a generally peaceful home can acquire virtue more readily than those in a disruptive home—though moral growth or sin are possible in both situations. The same is true of a city. A vigorous city makes holiness more likely; a chaotic and corrupt city requires extraordinary individual moral striving. Again, sinners can be found everywhere, as can the saintly.
Urban holiness starts with its architecture, zoning and construction. A city’s shape can enhance or limit the moral lives of its inhabitants, explains Wade Graham in Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas (Harper Collins, 2016). But bulldozers, construction cranes and surveyors cannot guarantee moral outcomes. It cannot be assumed that salvation comes by bricks alone. It is a mistake, says Graham, to simply put “faith in things to transform our souls and spirits.”
For example, Graham explains the invention some years ago of the concept of blight. The remedy for which was urban renewal. These projects, however, addressed poverty and deterioration entirely “in terms of buildings (the hardware), not in terms of people, jobs, wages and the economy (the software).”
Today, there are those who see the city’s response to poverty in the same terms they use for prosperity. They propose more hardware or more money, maybe for policing or for education. Last week, for example, a plan was floated to rehab certain strip malls as an antidote to Chicago’s gang violence. A reasonable argument is made to increase funding for city schools. But again, new facilities and more computers do not in isolation improve student test scores or lower the dropout rate. Detached from the software side of life, hardware solutions are distractions—at least to some degree.

Much of what makes a city a good place to live has less to do with money and buildings than it does with the person-to-person relationships that are formed. Cities provide unique ways of relating to others, to the world and to God, says Pope Francis. Presuming, that is, our dedication to “a connective network” through which “people share a common imagination and dreams.” Connecting is not automatic. Segregation, violence, corruption and neglect are, as Pope Francis is aware, the default positions of urban life. Urban holiness requires, in his terminology, “a culture of encounter,” which no longer happens randomly.

Just as in the old fable of the “Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” there are people today who assert the moral superiority of nature over the city. The city is for survival, they say. It is for making money. Nature, the fable continues, is for companionship and contemplation. A spiritual life, this fable says, requires a retreat from sidewalks and alleys to meadows and sunsets.
This fable is wrong. So too is the disparaging prattle about Chicago currently emanating from our White House. Chicago is great with its magnificent architecture and fine museums and many tourist venues. A city’s greatness is not its hardware, though. No, a city’s greatness arises from its hospitality to immigrants, to refugees seeking a new life, to students and workers, to the elderly and dispossessed, to young parents and to the poor. From an unlikely mix of urban characters come poets, taxi drivers, teachers and citizens. Cities are incubators and repositories of culture and civilization. The city is the place where women and men come to make their way in the world and where they encounter others, thereby creating something greater than the sum of the parts.
Chicago is great—and Philadelphia, St. Paul, Austin, Buffalo and your city. Great that is, to the extent that each of us takes responsibility to nurture relationships and give meaning to the next generation. A great city emerges when we urban humanists make a practice of meeting people one-by-one; when we treat a lunch conversation or an office appointment as sacred; when another person’s story is the text for our spiritual reflection; when we abandon our opinionated generalities and instead make a premium of each privileged encounter.
Noble humanity flourishes in a city. In fact, because culture is densely concentrated there, urban spirituality is quite rich.

Go Black Hawks.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

The Working Catholic: Pure Faith

Fr. Isaac Hecker, CSP (1819-1888) founded the Paulist Fathers, the first United States-based religious order. His sermon on “The Feast of St. Joseph” gives a summary of Hecker’s spiritual outlook:

Our age is not an age of martyrdom, nor an age of hermits, nor a monastic age. Although it has its martyrs, its recluses and its monastic communities, these are not and are not likely to be its prevailing type of Christian perfection. Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in workshops, in homes and in varied relations that form human society, and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced.

Of course, every society has moral defects, some of which are quite serious. Hecker believed, however, that faith grows and spreads when the achievements of a society and a culture (in his case the United States) are first appreciated. Start with the positive, Hecker said.
A different outlook is making its way around the internet. Called The Benedict Option, it starts with the negatives of society and tries to construct a so-called pure Christian lifestyle. The movement’s name, reports The Wall St. Journal (2/19/17), is in homage to St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547), who founded a dozen small communities or monasteries in Italy. Some people identify with the movement while maintaining their normal job and while residing in a normal neighborhood. They take care, however, to avoid so-called secular influences. They spend time with others who share their worldview. Other people, as WSJ profiles, move into an alternative community and worship in a monastic setting.
This anti-cultural option is nothing new within Catholicism. Recluses, monastic communities and religious purists are always part of the mix; they come and go. The admirable Catholic Worker movement, for example, judges our dominant culture to be indifferent and violence-prone. People join the Catholic Worker to give symbolic protest and to serve the poor in personal, non-bureaucratic fashion. The Catholic Charismatic movement, to give a second contemporary example, is countercultural to one degree or another.
A few expressions of Christianity (Amish, for example) are designed to stand apart from the dominant culture. Catholicism, while it always benefits from sincere countercultural witness, is not designed to be sectarian. Catholicism is for sinners, not for a pure remnant.
The danger for those who espouse the Benedict Option is self-righteousness. Withdrawing from a so-called corrupt society is not in itself a more holy way than staying in society while advancing the common good. Home-schooling is not more holy than reforming a public school. A Mass celebrated in Latin is not more pleasing to God than one celebrated in Spanish or English. Serving dinner in a Catholic Worker house is no more a corporal work of mercy than a social worker spending a frustrating day arranging for a family’s food and shelter benefits.
In traditional Catholicism the virtue of social justice is finding like-minded people within one’s workplace or neighborhood and then in concert improving a policy or an institution. Social justice is hard because it is incremental. Always more to do tomorrow. It is also hard because it requires tradeoffs. Is half-a-loaf too little to settle for? Are the allies on this week’s effort too morally objectionable or is temporary collaboration OK? Will the side-effects of this week’s improvement cause greater harm within a few months?
Each Catholic needs monastic time and space–a few minutes each day, an hour or more once a week (in addition to Mass, which is world-affirming) and ideally a weekend retreat once a year. Catholicism cannot, however, endorse monasticism for the majority.
Do you want to entice children and young adults with the power of our faith? Try bringing solid Catholic tradition and our sacramental imagination into contact with the positives in their life and in our culture—jazz, the Constitution, baseball, public libraries, solar engineering, affordable housing development, direct relationships that avoid social media, efficient plumbing and garbage collection (the front line against disease), the jury system, sophisticated adoption agencies, a relatively vibrant voluntary sector, religious freedom (though in need of democratic vigilance), newspapers, well-maintained parks and expansive forests, clean water (though jeopardized in Michigan and elsewhere), colleges (though pay restraint for head football coaches is needed), resilient families (though pro-marriage public policies are needed), the hospice movement, group homes for mentally disabled (though more responsible management is needed in some of them), daily mail delivery, non-violent protest, lasagna and many more manifestations of God’s grace.

Droel is the author of Patty Crowley: Lay Pioneer (NCL, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $2.75 donation)

Working Catholic: Stop Trafficking

by Bill Droel

Our office of county sheriff has an animal welfare unit. It received a tip about dog fighting as promoted by a small betting ring. The police rescued nearly all of the animals. Sheriff Tom Dart then held a press conference, warning the public about this illegal activity. The department’s website was immediately flooded with praise from rightly appalled animal lovers and responsible citizens.
Later that week the department got a tip about a motel where prostitution was suspected. The police went there and caught several people. Again, Dart held a press conference. This time the website received only a few reactions, most of which were against the police. This is a matter of free will between consenting adults, people told the police.

“No it isn’t,” Dart explained at a meeting on “Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation,” held at Sacred Heart Church in Palos Hills, Illinois. First, “one of the girls was 14, another 15.” Second, it is “not consensual.” Girls and women are systematically lured into prostitution with psychological and physical coercion, Dart said.
The contrast between the reactions to the two police raids says to Dart that, in a sense, “society allows trafficking.” The public, Dart continued, has to be more aware that trafficking “is wrong.” It is not confined to Thailand. It can gain hold within a local high school, it can grow within a nearby mall and it is routinely facilitated through the internet.

The two-year old Sacred Heart Domestic Violence Outreach committee sponsored the January 2017 meeting with the sheriff. (As an aside, one of the young committee leaders happens to have the same unusual last name as your blogger: Elizabeth Droel.) The anti-trafficking movement will likely spread because representatives from a half-dozen nearby churches joined Sacred Heart parishioners for this January 2017 meeting.

The challenge is difficult and because of the internet it has become more so. In particular Dart faulted Craig’s List (which recently changed its policies) and Backpage (which has not). Dart also admitted that with happy exceptions the legal system can further demean girls and women. And, as Dart sadly learned, not all so-called safe houses are perfectly safe. He did, however, express approval for one recovery house not far from Sacred Heart.
Dart thinks “it is ridiculous” for responsible parents to accede when children assert a so-called right to privacy about their use of the internet. All children deserve wise care from good parents, he concluded.

The Sacred Heart committee distributed a prayer to St. Josephine Bakhita, FDCC (1869-1947). She was abducted into slavery and toiled in rich people’s homes until, with help from women religious and others, she escaped in Italy. “O St. Josephine, assist all those who are trapped [and] help all survivors find healing. Those whom people enslave, let God set free… We ask for your prayer through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
Next month this blog will report on an anti-trafficking awareness campaign among hotel workers, spearheaded by women religious.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter on faith and work.

The Working Catholic: Scientists

by Bill Droel

Pope Francis recently uttered what should be regarded as one more ho-hum statement: “Never before has there been such a clear need for science.” This comment, given to a group of scientists, is notable only because many people (Catholics included) think that Catholicism in general and specifically the papacy oppose science.

The confusion can be attributed in part to a lack of knowledge about the Catholic approach to the Bible, explains Heidi Russell, the author of Quantum Shift (Liturgical Press, 2015).
In the United States the default setting for appropriating the Bible is fundamentalism–strict literal fundamentalism, soft or convenient or situational fundamentalism, or a widespread haziness on the historical background of individual Bible books. Catholics, by the way, are among those who use the default setting on occasion.
Russell told U.S. Catholic magazine (11/16) that once while waiting around in a concert venue she met a consistent fundamentalist. The gentleman was so consistent that he gave up his faith. Why so? He read that on the fourth day God created the sun and light. (Genesis 1: 14f) But he also read that on the third day God created plants and trees. (Genesis 1: 9f) “So how could you have plants before you had sun?” Russell could only reply: Sorry, we’re Catholic; we approach Scripture differently.
It is easy for atheists to think they can rattle Catholicism, continues Russell. Those atheists trumpet a theory (like multi-universes) that seemingly contradicts something the Bible, presuming that Catholics pull isolated pieces out of context and then read those verses literally. And lo and behold, some Catholics (including at times a bishop or two) react to the scattershot salvos from atheists.

“The Blue Cross” by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) is among the best of about 50 mystery stories featuring Fr. Brown as the sleuth. The criminal in this story disguises himself as a priest, but Fr. Brown uncovers the ruse. How did you know, the criminal asks him? Because in a prior conversation, Fr. Brown replies, “you attacked reason… It’s bad theology… I know that people charge the [Catholic] church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth the church makes reason really supreme.”

Is that true? What could it mean to say that the Catholic church “alone on earth” affirms reason or science? To be continued…

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Income Chart

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel and John Erb

In a series for this blog we say that the majority of U. S. families are economically stressed. Some worry about income and expenses now and then during the year; some worry every week. The chart in this installment of our essay is an imperfect attempt to make a point about income in our society.

The Wealthy, the Top 5%

This entire top 5% category could be conflated. But we divide it into three sections to note the stratification among the wealthy. The top-top people are far above anyone else.

Percentage of Families = Top 1/10% of Families.

Income = Over $2million annually. This top 1/10% is stratified; that is, the top-top ultra-wealthy are deriving an income even greater than the super-wealthy.

Description = These families are winner-take-all types in sports, business, communications and the like. This type of family lives in luxury. Their excess goes to investments thereby adding to their wealth. (This essay does not focus specifically on the unprecedented wealth gap.) Private equity executives are on average getting $211million salary per year. Major bank executives average $22million. A well-known TV newsperson now gets $20million. The University of Michigan football coach gets $9million.

******

Percentage of Families = Next 9/10%.

Income = Average of $1,150,000 each year. Of course, there is a significant geography variable. The income of families in this category is higher in the suburbs around New York City than it is for Alabama or Mississippi families in the same category.

Description = These are top professionals. They have significant surplus after their expenses. Most of the surplus is invested. This category is distinguished from the top 1/10% only because the annual increase in their income is at a smaller rate than the runaway super-wealthy.

******

Percentage of Families = This category of lower rich makes for about 4% of all families.

Income = From $300,000 to $1million, again with a geographic variable.

Description = These are executives who, for example, manage a state-wide chain of drug stores or retail stores; some surgeons are in this category as are some sports agents; it also includes some commercial bankers, college presidents, a lawyer in acquisitions and mergers and the like. Workers in this category routinely clock 60 or more hours per week.

The Traditional Middle-Class

Percentage of Families = About 15% of all families are in the upper middle class. These families, as with those in the categories above, have a degree of security.

Income =$111,000 to $250,000.

Description = These are pharmacists, college administrators, some college teachers, some doctors, some real estate developers, some local bank executives. These families are susceptible to drop-offs in income, but they recover. These families have retirement savings.

******

Percentage of Families = About 20% are in the standard middle class. This is where the economic stress line begins. These families are employed, but still experience periodic income shortfall.

Income = $86,000 to $110,000 with some overlap with upper middle class.

Description = These are teachers, social workers, some information technology workers, some health service managers. This category also includes some municipal workers in a union and some contractors. These families have some savings and can be homeowners. However, an illness, a divorce or a downturn in the local economy poses a setback.

******

Percentage of Families = About 10% are lower middle class. Somewhat regular economic worry sets in below $85,000.

Income = $57,000 to $85,000. Our nation’s median income is currently $56,000, which is at the bottom of this category. Half of all families are either wealthy or middle class; the other half earns less than a middle class income.

Description = These are families with a job, though not a secure one. They are retail floor managers, computer technicians, cable installers, some teachers, some registered nurses, government office workers, some service workers. Some of those in this category might hold a college degree; others have taken college courses but not completed a degree program.

The Working Class
This section (in two categories) includes about 50% of all families.

Percentage of Families = About 20% of all families are in the upper working class.

Income = About $34,000 to $56,000 with fluxion year-to-year. Our nation’s median income ($56,000) comes at the top of this category.

Description = These are people in the service industry, in retail, in fast food; also in sales, data entry, licensed practical nurses and more. They are prone to unemployment episodes.
These families have no discretionary income. In a given month they often spend more than they make. The difference between earnings and spending is offset with government programs, tax credits and mostly with debt—first credit card debt, and as necessary with payday loans. A $400 emergency (a car repair or medical situation) can mean a payday loan and the downward spiral that the loan’s high interest causes.
******
Percentage of Families = About 30% of families are in this category of working poor.

Income = Less than $33,000, including subsidies.

Description = Included in this category are parents who work in restaurants, are seasonally employed gardeners, or who sell scrap metal and repair cars for neighbors, are home health aides and the like. Plus those who work “here and there,” but are regularly experience unemployment.

Family Stability, Part III

The Working Catholic by Bill Droel and John Erb

In this and previous installments on this blog site we attempt to put a small frame around the expansive topic of family stability. We now come to a controversial juncture.

The Lifestyle Variable

Income parallels family stability. Family stability parallels lifestyles–some lifestyles are conducive to family stability, others less so. It is important, however, to repeat that the relationship among these three factors (money, lifestyle and stability) plus other factors is not an easy cause-and-effect. That is, we cannot say that because there is a strong association between a specific lifestyle and stability, a change in lifestyle automatically causes more stability or less stability.
Further, we recognize that people do not wake up each morning and choose a lifestyle. It is like one’s spirituality. Despite what the self-help gurus imply, one’s spirituality is to a significant degree conditioned by one’s heritage, by the surrounding culture and by many experiences. A lifestyle too is in part an imitation or rejection of one’s parental example, an imitation or rejection of one’s cultural environment and a continuation of or break with one’s many experiences.
And finally—because this is controversial—this essay does not measure love; as if anyone can do so. All types of families cherish their members and love their children. Just as all types and income levels of families are capable of callousness; a parent in any income bracket can be distant from his or her children.

Family living arrangements or lifestyles can include a two-parent married family, two-parent non-married family, one-parent family with one partner for that parent, one-parent family with multiple partners for the parent and more. Upper economic class families, for the most part, are of the two-parent married type and, as this essay shows, those families are relatively stable over the years. The median income for one of these married-couple families, presuming each parent is employed at least part-time, is $104,000. Many families in the lower economic categories are likely to be two-parent non-married families or one-parent families. These families have greater degree and duration of instability.

Interestingly, the education gap is a mirror image of this family stability index. In excess of 90% of college graduates use the institution of marriage and those families tend to be relatively stable. Those who lack a degree do not always marry. These families have higher instability.
The non-married type of lifestyle has been increasing. In fact, last year the majority of living arrangements in the United States were between unmarried couples. Interestingly too, there is no longer a race gap when it comes to marriage. That is, white families now have a percentage of non-married or single heads of the household that approximates the percentage among black families.
And as our chart to follow will show, a clear majority of Americans are economically stressed.

A Political Variable; Maybe Not

Pundits incessantly speak and write about a polarized citizenry. Our chart provides strong basis for a proposition that the polarization is not so much driven by political philosophies, as it is by economic insecurity. The number of Americans who are economically stressed continues to grow. Outsider political candidates will continue to appeal to the economically stressed. Yet, so-called Beltway insiders and many pundits dismiss these outsider challengers. That is because they are not really in touch with the financial realities facing a majority of Americans.
To repeat once more: Our chart (in the next installment of this series) shows that economic stress visits the majority of families—almost constantly for some.

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Family Stability

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel and John Erb

In a four-part series on this blog site we examine the factors that determine family stability or instability, which as we previously wrote, are namely income and a few socio-cultural trends. We stress that these factors do not form a neat equation nor does one of the factors necessarily cause another; simply that a few stability factors parallel one another.

The Geography Variable

First, wages and cost of living vary from state-to-state, from region-to-region. New York City is, for example, higher income and higher cost; Mississippi or Alabama is lower income and lower cost. To have a top 1% income in the New York City region requires nearly $1.4million annual (much higher for the top 1/10th%). Meanwhile, an annual income of about $100,000 equals top 1% in parts of Mississippi and Alabama.
Second, higher income families are concentrated within specific metropolitan areas and specific areas of a state. So too, lower income families are concentrated within certain city neighborhoods, certain rural areas or certain state regions. In the mythological Lake Wobegon Chatterbox Café, an unemployed farmhand can sit at a table with the town banker. That is unlikely anywhere else. Higher income people do not share the same space as middle income or lower income people—not even at the football stadium, or the airport, or at church.
Third, some commentators refer to cultural/political geography. They mean our country can be divided (or color-coded) into, on one hand, East Coast and West Coast and, on the other hand, Middle America. This essay, however, is on a different track. Instability and income stress touches the majority of families—blue and red, Coast and Middle.

The Education Variable

Prior to 1980 young adults in our country were adequately educated to meet the needs of the marketplace. That is, a sufficient number had sufficient education in the trades, accounting, secretarial skills, engineering and more. Since 1980 the needs of employers have steadily outpaced educational attainment. Thus, as is often said today, a college degree is a necessity. The word degree is crucial.
With individual exceptions, income strongly parallels a college degree: Those who have a degree also have some family security and a modicum of upward mobility. Those without a degree more likely experience instability and remain stuck at their family’s income level.
There are two related points to make about a college degree and income.
First, those young adults whose parents hold a degree are more likely to attend college than other young adults and they are much more likely to complete college. A young adult whose parents did not complete college is not as likely to enroll in college or once enrolled is more likely to drop out. Mentioning this college degree gap feels un-American because education is thought to be an economic leveler. A young adult who studies and works hard can, the theory says, do better economically than the previous generation. According to the American promise, no one is condemned to their parents’ income level. Unfortunately, this promising theory has not been the reality. Those born between 1960 and 1980 have, on average, a 60% chance of exceeding their parents’ income. Those born after 1980 have, on average, a 50% chance of ever exceeding their parents.
The second related point tells us that not all college degrees are equal. About 8% of those billionaires who hold a U.S. passport also have a Harvard University degree. Other Ivy League schools account for a similar percentage of billionaires. The remaining top 10% in income also hold degrees from Ivy League or major state colleges or in fewer cases from one of the well-known Catholic colleges. On the next step down, that of an aspiring upper-middle class family, the student’s degree comes from a Catholic college or a less prestigious state school; followed by other schools, public and private.
A quick digression about dropping out of college: In a public, four-year college about 60% obtain a degree within six years; about 40% have dropped out. In a private, four-year college the graduation rate is about 65% within six years; about 35% never finish.
A community college can be a start, but the full bachelor’s degree is the factor that parallels a better income. In Illinois, to take one example, only about 21% of community college students complete a program there within three years. Of those who begin at a community college only about 15% go on to a bachelor’s degree within six to eight years.
Why do students drop out? Tuition becomes too expensive; the tension between studies and a job becomes unmanageable; someone in the family is ill; the student or spouse loses a job; a baby is born. As significantly, though not as frequently discussed, is a student’s lack of confidence in study habits like perseverance, curiosity, concentration, resourcefulness, creativity and more. They are unprepared to take apart a textbook, to know what is important in class and what is not so important, to write paragraphs that flow one from the other, to stick with a problem, to manage time knowing when to take overtime on the job and when to concentrate on school. Rather than confidently finding help with their studies, too many students drift away.
To be continued…