More than 20 years ago, I was unemployed for four interminable months. It was, without a doubt, the most trying time of my adult life.
I had chosen to leave a good job without another one to go to. At first, I enjoyed my freedom from a disciplined daily routine and the ability to do whatever I chose. But that didn't last long.
I soon was itching to find work, partly because I wanted a regular pay cheque and some order to my life. But mainly I felt my dignity ebbing away. It is in my nature – I suspect in the nature of all of us – to want to contribute through work where my talents would be of value.
When I finally found my next job, I began to feel whole again. I appreciated much more than I had previously the opportunity to contribute to society and to be part of the ebb and flow of community life. I had also come to see what an awful thing unemployment is. I was only unemployed for a few months and even then desperation was setting in. What must it be like to be permanently unemployed?
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes work not as an opportunity, but as a fundamental right. Employment is the foundation for family life. It is also the route, via savings, to the acquisition of property. And work is a way that each of us contribute to the common good.
Although everyone has the right to work, the Compendium says it is not the job of the government to directly guarantee that everyone has a job. The government's role is to ensure a climate of business activity so that job opportunities abound.
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Every economic system has an obligation to pursue full employment. One key ingredient in meeting that obligation is solidarity. If private businesses fail to provide full employment, people can band together in cooperative initiatives that provide work.
The solidarity of a community is more important than the profit motive or government-run businesses in ensuring the economic viability of a community. Ultimately, full employment is a human goal more than an economic one.
That can be seen in forms of work which are "economically unproductive" but absolutely essential for the good of the community. Raising children, caring for elderly parents and engaging in volunteer work are all activities which typically provide no remuneration but without which society could not function.
In his encyclical On Human Work, Pope John Paul II referred to the tendency to view work only in terms of its economic purpose as "the error of economism" (n. 13). It is a distortion of the purpose of work to see it solely in terms of production and consumption. In the final analysis, this "error" is a form of materialism that denies the transcendent dignity of the person.
It is an error made not only by economists but also by workers who see their jobs exclusively as a means to a desired end.
Society needs always to be aware of the dynamic interplay between healthy families and a strong economy. A strong economy helps the family by ensuring it the means of subsistence. It gives people confidence to start a family because they trust that they will be able to afford to raise their children and that their children will have economic opportunities when they become adults.
Healthy families build the economy too. They nurture the creative and workmanlike talents of their children. They raise children who will not do minimum work for maximum pay but who will strive to contribute to the common good. They also ensure that one spouse will not become dependent on government welfare to raise those children. Strengthen the family and you will strengthen the economy.
The Compendium dwells at some length on the special employment situations of women, immigrants, people with disabilities, the illiterate, ex-convicts and less-specialized workers. A human society would not permit people in those special situations to be forgotten and left on the margins. Create work for all and a better society will be born. Dependency will be reduced and people's awareness of their own dignity will increase. Each will give according to his ability.