Intellectual Disability

Intellectual Disability

Droel_pictureBill Droel

It all started here in Chicago. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke was once upon a time only 24-years old when, as a gym instructor for the Chicago Park District, she was selected to organize an event for intellectually disabled people. Burke had no expertise with the special needs population. But the Kennedy Foundation awarded the CPD and Burke a small grant. Thus in July 1968 “on the field and in the largely empty stands of Soldier Field,” writes Tim Shriver in his inspiring book, Fully Alive (Farrar, Straus, 2014), Chicago became the site for the first “national athletic competition for people with intellectual disabilities.” The immensely popular Special Olympics is now, of course, well-known. It has international branches and many related programs and competitions.

At the time Burke and others only suspected what is now common sense: That physical activity increases a person’s ability to learn and to function in other settings. This is generally true for all of us, but this insight along with others changed how the disabled are regarded. Read more

Tips in Restaurants

Tips in Restaurants

Droel_picture Bill Droel

The Wall St. Journal (3/1/15) reports that restaurant spending increased by 11.3% over the past year and that “food-service employment has surged.” The income of restaurant workers has not equaled the uptick in meals served; though employers are starting to pay more—3.1% more over the past year says the Department of Labor. Owners and managers want to adequately serve customer volume, and also want to lower their costly turnover rate (as high as 80% a year in some restaurants).

The restaurant business makes a distinction between front of the house workers (primarily the table servers and often bartenders) and back of the house workers (cooks, dishwashers, some hostesses and others). Technically, diners are not allowed to tip back of the house, though waiters and waitresses usually share a portion of the tip with others. Many diners think of the tip as a token of gratitude to their server. But that common notion is not correct. A 1966 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act introduced a subminimum tip wage for certain occupations. The tip wage is currently $2.13 in Federal law and has been stuck at that amount since 1991. Laws in some states supersede the Federal tip minimum, putting the tip wage at $4 to $4.95. Tips are therefore, at least in a certain sense, a subsidy to restaurant owners and tips certainly are essential to workers, the majority of whom are women. Of course, restaurant pay is better in some states, in some restaurants and on some shifts than others. Here, however, are some numbers in the ballpark: The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median for front of the house workers at $8.94, which includes the tip. Considering back and front workers in the same category, the Labor Department says the average is currently $12.28. By the way, servers pay tax on the presumed tip plus the wage from the restaurant. If a diner doesn’t tip or tips less than the IRS presumes, the server still pays the tax. Read more

Sentiment Part II

Sentiment Part II

Bill Droel

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The distinction between private life and public life is eroding to the detriment of both. Private life is spilling over into the public realm on so-called reality TV shows, all over social media and in displays of personal information in inappropriate places. From the other end, public life at work, in the voting booth and in government proceedings succumbs to private feelings of liking and not liking, rather than judgments of competence and respect. Film stars and other performers have always coyly and incrementally leaked pieces of their private life to their fans. But now there is the category of micro-celebrity that includes anyone who blogs, posts or stands in front of a pocket camera. We unthinkingly display ourselves without appreciating how trivial our personal relationships become when they are marketed so widely.

Jonathan Franzen, in a collection of essays titled Farther Away (Farrar, Straus, 2012), takes particular exception to the cell phone, as wielded on trains, in restaurants, along college hallways and in medical waiting rooms. Spare “me from the intrusion of other people’s personal lives,” he writes. Especially as they inflict “their banal bedroom lives” over a cell phone in a public space. Read more

Manufacturing

Manufacturing

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Bill Droel

It is hard to get a handle on globalization because it includes nearly instant communication, instant transfers of money, plus trade policies, including tariffs and NAFTA. It is also the IMF, currency rates, immigration policies, large-scale assembly and distribution of goods, speculative trading of complex financial instruments, outsourcing and an international drug market, plus sweatshops, changes in government regulation, changes in the protection of patents, changes in labor relations and fluxionary natural resource markets. It is the education gap and the income gap as well as a new corporate culture of mergers, bankruptcies, short-term bottom lines and so-called scientific management techniques. Yet Chad Broughton helps us understand it all with a compelling “tale of two cities”: Galesburg, Illinois which is off Interstate 74, about 200 miles west of Chicago and Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from McAllen, Texas. His Boom, Bust, Exodus (Oxford University Press, 2015) weaves around a handful of workers in each place. Read more

Working Catholic – Stories Are True

Stories Are True

Droel_pictureBill Droel

Mike Houlihan is a raconteur of Chicago neighborhoods and a columnist for Irish American News. One column wisely begins: “A good story never really ends. Maybe you’ve heard a few from me before, but like the story of our lives, it continues to unravel in directions we never imagined.” Another column, as found in his collection More Hooliganism Stories (Book Bullet, 2014), advises us that “this story is true, only the names have been changed, as well as the embellishment and complete fabrication of all the actual facts.” Although teasingly phrased, Houlihan’s sentence is worth pondering.

We moderns presume that something is either a phony myth or a verifiable fact. We moderns thus have difficulty appreciating the meaning of life because it really resides somewhere in between fantasy and the scientific. We moderns have trouble with faith because it is supposed to be true but it cannot be proven; so maybe it is false. Or, maybe faith is somehow true if it can be sequestered from tangible daily life in the classroom, the office, the legislature, and the community at large. Read more

Working Catholic – Community Colleges

Community Colleges

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Bill Droel

President Barack Obama is a champion of community colleges—not only in his recent State of the Union address, but regularly since the first days of his administration.

Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer here in Chicago, is not convinced. College, especially community college, “is not a sure route to the middle class,” he writes in Only One Thing Can Save Us (The New Press, 2014). The context is all wrong. There are hardly enough stateside manufacturing jobs to sustain our service/knowledge economy. The U.S. trade deficit is over the top. Authentic worker participation in decision-making is rare. Plus, students carry too much debt on their credit cards and need education loans. Then, there is the high dropout rate—a topic to be examined in a future Working Catholic column. For these reasons and more, says Geoghegan, a push for more college does not automatically make us better off.

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Too Much Sentiment, Part I

The Working Catholic: Too Much Sentiment, Part I

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 By Bill Droel

“A Christian worldview can exist in writing that is not necessarily Christian,” asserts Lisa Ohlen Harris in the February 2015 issue of a terrific evangelical publication, Books and Culture. Meanwhile, she continues, “our own [Christian] literature often lacks the bite and angst our worldview ought to embrace.”

Harris has in mind most of the novels in the “Spiritual” or “Christian Fiction” section of many bookstores—though there are not so many bookstores these days. She doesn’t like all the sweetness and sentimentality. “We do the same with Bible stories, sanitizing and simplifying them,” she says. “The story of Noah becomes a sweet means of counting by twos instead of a story of apocalypse.” Life, she reminds us, is not tidy. Most tensions are not resolved in a moment during which we “receive Christ” and shout “yes and amen.”  Indeed, many tensions are never totally over. Read more

Workers’ Participation

Workers’ Participation

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by Bill Droel

Catholicism opposes collectivist or state-controlled economic approaches. At the same time it opposes an unregulated market and rejects magical economics, as implied in metaphors like rising tide, invisible hand and trickle down. Throughout the industrial era and now in our post-industrial times, Catholicism draws upon its principles of participation and subsidiarity to advocate for an occupational order or solidarism. This concept is known in France as corporatism, in Belgium it is called delegates for personnel or in Germany it is co-determinism or works councils. In the United States Catholicism translated solidarism as industry council plan. (When I say Catholicism, I mean that Catholic doctrine includes economic principles. That doctrine is derived from Scripture, natural law and experience and it is available to all people of good will. However, I admit that few Catholics have ever heard about their social doctrine.)

Tom Geoghegan argues for an occupational order in his latest book, Only One Thing Can Save Us (The New Press, 2014). He draws upon the successful German economy and thus uses their terms: co-determined boards and works councils. In a previous book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? (The New Press, 2010), Geoghegan mentions the Catholic influence on the German model; though in this latest book he leaves out that connection.

Members of a company’s works council are elected from among shareholders and employees. Shareholders always are in the majority and a shareholder is always the chair. In Europe the employee members belong to a union, but this union factor is not essential to the solidarism model. A works council is more than an employee suggestion committee; it has some authority. The council is not involved in setting wages, pensions, health benefits and the like. It concentrates on day-to-day operations like scheduling, departmental flow and improvements to the production process or to delivery of services. The result is a more motivated workforce with lower levels of discontent. Of course, not every works council is perfect. However, the standard model of company directors detached from the actual work space is, as the economic collapse of 2008 amply taught us, flawed in practice and, says Catholicism, flawed in theory.

Geoghegan is not observing our scene from a reclining chair. He can be seen every day in a Chicago courtroom, a neighborhood luncheonette, a train station, a union hall, a community theater or a church basement. Geoghegan is aligned with many causes and charities around our city. His book seeks something that relieves government of some regulatory impulses yet at the same time something that puts brake shoes on ragged laissez faire capitalism. It comes wrapped with several provocative ideas:

  • That under proper conditions unions might be better off not representing everyone in a workplace.
  • That a college degree may not be the ideal for most young adults if our economy remains as it is.
  • That nurses are uniquely poised to make our economy more inclusive.
  • That credit card consumption cannot possibly lift our economy absent a prevailing wage for all families.
  • That the Chicago Teachers Union is a positive influence (a topic of controversy around my city).
  • That clumps of fast food workers and others who walk off the job for a short time put meaningful pressure on the Democratic Party and, to a degree, the Republican Party to address family life issues.
  • Geoghegan loves our country and its legal, economic, political and educational systems. His ideas are the subject for a subsequent Working Catholic column.

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

Service Projects

Service Projects

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Bill Droel

This is a sign of the times: Thousands of Catholic young adults now participate in service projects and even in a year-long volunteer corps. These volunteer opportunities are not only offered through Catholic schools, religious orders and agencies. Other denominations and secular institutions also have service projects in which Catholics serve along with others. Volunteerism is hardly new in our country, though service requirements in school, mission trips in college and post-grad volunteer corps are recent developments—at least in their current scope. In the old days young adults more or less sought out volunteer opportunities on their own, for mixed motives: to change society, to learn from a charismatic leader, or (in my case anyway) to meet women. Today’s young adults, their program leaders and the service agencies are all to be applauded.

Michael Laskey of Camden, writing in U.S. Catholic (11/14), wonders though if “the default approach [to young adult volunteering] is out of whack.” He is all for service but, he asks, how many young adults really form a relationship with those they serve? Like most North Americans, Laskey admits to a “preference for the quick fix.” Volunteering often becomes a one-way effort to get the job done, Laskey finds. Do young adult volunteers, he concludes, ever “confront any suffering or ask difficult questions about the world” or about themselves?

At one time Laskey’s own forays into volunteerism were premised on tackling “solutions to injustices.” He came to think that maybe it is better to “start with relationships.” His acquired approach, he says, seems more in harmony with Pope Francis’ themes of going to the peripheries to build “a culture of encounter.”

“Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world,” writes Pope Francis. “Often it is better simply to slow down, put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others.”

Francis intends to encourage people and so admits that some might feel “offended by my words.” Yet, he continues, the dominant culture likes “the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional.” Christian service, by contrast, should first be about encounter—not “simply an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of charity a la carte.” And second, it should “make an impact on society” by “working to eliminate structural causes of poverty.”

It is hard to create bridging relationships, says Paul Lichterman in Elusive Togetherness (Princeton University Press, 2005), his case study of nine volunteer and advocacy projects that explores the tension between lending-a-hand service and partnering. The less fortunate can seem inscrutable, Lichterman admits. So the best-intentioned volunteers often proceed with partial understanding, unconcerned with the larger map of the culture and civic world around the needy. The volunteers complete the task, yet have loose connections to the less fortunate and even to one another—not only in direct service projects but in policy campaigns, like for example those concerned with a living wage or with eliminating trafficking.

Young adult volunteering is a marvelous development. Its graduates are included in the powerful 2%. But their project leaders and the young adults might reflect on their experience with an eye toward the public arts of encounter: How will this experience carry over into my career and family life? Does this experience, perhaps in synergy with Catholic tradition, suggest any principles that can be used on my job or in my own culture? And did I develop an appropriate public friendship with my fellow volunteers and those we tried to serve?

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES, a newsletter about faith and work. Get INITIATIVES and Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis’ fuller thoughts on a culture of encounter, from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $10 pre-paid).

Thanksgiving Images

Thanksgiving Images

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Bill Droel

Our image of Thanksgiving Day is influenced by famous paintings, including from 1915 The First Thanksgiving by Jean Louis Ferris (1893-1930) and from 1943 the still popular Four Freedoms by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). These images serve a purpose even though they compress history and though celebrations in most homes are not as serene as the paintings.

The Statue of Liberty is second only to “that star-spangled banner” as a symbol of our beautiful country. It is also a fitting image for Thanksgiving even though again historical facts about the statue have been compressed.

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), the son of Italian immigrants to France, was involved with a circle of people who considered the French movement for liberty to be their gift to the United States and they raised money to donate a statue symbolizing that gift. A preview of the gift appeared at the Philadelphia Expo in 1876, but it took until 1880 before a complete statue was delivered to the U.S. embassy in Paris. The French circle wanted the gift to keep moving in the sense that the U.S. should support and sustain liberty among freedom-seeking movements around the world.

It wasn’t until 1886, however, that the statue was dedicated in New York’s Upper Bay. In the meantime a private fundraising campaign in our country was needed to secure the statue’s site, particularly to finance its pedestal. Part of the fundraising was the auction of a 14-line sonnet, The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). Her ancestors were Jewish-Russians who emigrated here before the Revolutionary War. At the time her poem was commissioned, Lazarus, sufficiently known in literary society, was volunteering at Emigrant Aid Society on the Lower East Side. The poem was mostly neglected but in 1903 it was written on a bronze tablet and only in 1945 was it mounted on the statue’s pedestal. The poem and the statue came to represent the thankful generosity of our country’s residents. So thankful, in fact, that we could open our hearts to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The statue’s symbolism of thanksgiving is, of course, reinforced by its proximity to Ellis Island. (I’m biased toward my home state of New York. But for the record, Ellis Island is mostly in New Jersey and Liberty Island itself is in New York.)

From 1892 to 1954 thousands of immigrants (including my grandmother), having just passed by the Statue of Liberty, gave thanks on Ellis Island for their arrival to our land of opportunity. Each generation of arrivals enriched our country with creativity, social capital, culture and faith—gifts to subsequent generations. Thus the table prayer on November 27, 2014 is not only one of thanks for God’s bounty, thanks for the privilege of residing in this country, thanks for the family and friends gathered, but also thanks for our ancestors and for those new arrivals who keep the gift moving.

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