Our country faces a fundamental question. Emerging from the pandemic, will we renew the promise of a free economy that provides our people with well-paying jobs? Or will we increase government pay-outs and benefits to cover up our failure?
Forty years ago, St. John Paul II issued the encyclical Laborem Exercens (Latin for “through work”). He argued that “human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.” John Paul II does not tell us what policies to adopt to meet our challenges. But he is very clear: Our goal should be to promote, provide, and honor work.
Work is about more than meeting our material needs. It has profound human significance. Through work, John Paul II writes, man “contribute[s] to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family.” Work allows us to provide for those in our care. But it is also a way to build upon and honor the labor of those who came before, and to better our world for those yet to be born.
To an elected official like myself, several insights in Laborem Exercens stand out.
First, “toil is something that is universally known, for it is universally experienced.” In other words, work is often hard, but it also brings people together through shared experiences. Shared work is a powerful engine of assimilation and it bonds liberals and conservatives in a common enterprise, which is something we certainly need in today’s divided society.
Second, the “principle of the priority of labour over capital.” In my experience, this is a controversial statement. It shouldn’t be, for the principle is deeply embedded in our national identity. In his first annual message to Congress, President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Applied to today: The business of what virtues and skills our people build up through work is more important than watching the stock market go up.
Third, the pope urges us “to act against unemployment, which in all cases is an evil, and which…can become a real social disaster.” He cautions against support systems that devalue work. When a system treats citizens as consumers only, and not as productive members of society, “incalculable damage is inevitably done…first and foremost damage to man.”
Fourth, family is “something that man is called to.” Work allows the family to be self-sufficient rather than dependent.
In short, Laborem Exercens is clear that there is dignity in work. Work is “one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures.” Because man is made in the image of God, he acts as a co-creator with God through his labor. But as I wrote in 2018, recognizing the dignity of work must not be an empty gesture. We must make changes and provide incentives that channel more Americans toward the kind of work that can sustain a family and build a brighter future.
Surveying the challenges facing modern economies, John Paul II acknowledges, “It is not for the Church to analyze scientifically the consequences that these changes may have on human society.” That’s the job of politicians.
In 2019, I made the case that the Church’s “teachings should guide us to reject an unserious and distracting debate over abstract labels, and simply start to build an economy that can better provide dignified work.” Six months later, a plague upended our economy and culture. As businesses shut down—both due to fearful customers and draconian government restrictions—employees faced the prospect of losing their jobs overnight.
Rather than letting small businesses go bankrupt and throwing workers on unemployment, I created the Paycheck Protection Program. We decided to pay small businesses to keep their workers on payroll through the worst of the lockdowns. The results were a transformative success. The program disbursed $800 billion in forgivable loans to millions of small businesses across the country, saving tens of millions of jobs.
The Paycheck Protection Program established a pattern we need to follow in the future. It kept employees out of the unemployment system and gave purpose to a paycheck. Employers have told me they were able to keep employees engaged through additional training, upgrades to existing facilities, and team-building exercises to sustain a sense of community. We preserved employers' ability to honor the dignity of work.
The same way of thinking led me and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to fight against our own party as we sought to expand the Child Tax Credit in 2017. The debate at the time was primarily about whether working parents deserved generous tax cuts or whether corporations did. Many of my Republican colleagues argued that corporations would pass along the benefits of tax cuts to employees in the form of higher wages.
Maybe that works for some, but for me and Sen. Lee, the decision was simple. We need to support working moms and dads trying to raise kids now. Ultimately, President Trump and my Republican colleagues agreed, allowing us to double the size of the child tax credit. Tax return data confirmed the 2017 law put millions into the pockets of working American families. It was a policy that honored and rewarded their work.
Now, with Democrats in control, the policy of choice is a government child allowance. It’s the revival of the failed anti-work welfare regime that crippled an entire generation three decades ago. Whether they work or not, parents will receive monthly payments of $300 for each child under age 6 and $250 for each child age 7–17. No work required. This approach degrades our fellow citizens and does not honor their capacity to be productive workers.
The argument over a pro-work child tax credit versus an anti-work government child allowance exemplifies the choice we face. Will we encourage an economy that works for its people? Or one in which people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere can work and do well, while cash payments from Washington pacify those left behind? Laborem Exercens identifies key challenges. John Paul II speaks of “the education...that is not oriented towards the types of employment or service requires by the true needs of society.” We need to shift resources toward vocational education and pathways to success other than college. The college-for-all mentality has been damaging. Not only does it burden young people with student loan debt, but it also dissuades people from working with their hands, which can be very rewarding.
Our problems are compounded by the fact that our economy is built on finance and service industries, as opposed to production. Our education system is skewed, the financial markets are skewed, and the global markets thrive on short-term exploitation. How we change course is an inherently political question.
One does not need to be Catholic or even a believer to see the truth of what John Paul II says: “Human work has an ethical value of its own.” Let’s turn away from the complacent approach of buying off Americans with cash payments. We must build a more prosperous and fair economy that can provide dignified work for all Americans. Justice, equality, and meaning will not come through checks sent from Washington, but through work.
Marco Rubio is the senior United States senator for Florida.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.