September 2, 2010
Almost two years have passed since President-elect Obama categorized our country’s economic problems as “the worst financial crisis in a century.” During this time, there have been herculean attempts to jump start the economy. Yet, after a $700 billion bailout to the banks, $82 billion bailout to the auto industry and a $787 billion stimulus package, our economic troubles are still with us. Seventy-six percent of all Americans are hesitant to spend money, while an overwhelming ninety-two percent judge the economy to be in a very unhealthy place.
A recent 9.5 percent unemployment figure shows an economy dragging its feet. But that number includes only those individuals who are looking for work. There are others who have simply given up the search for full-time employment. As of the beginning of this summer, one out of six individuals was jobless. That brings the unemployment figure to16.5 percent. People are not searching for jobs, because they do not believe that there are jobs to be found. Main Street is not convinced that we are on the road to recovery.
For anyone to pursue happiness and to find meaning in life, work is essential. When someone loses a job, that individual suffers not simply economic loss, but also emotional suffering. The person senses a lack of purpose and fulfillment accompanied by frustration and sometimes despair. The shrunken job market affects not only the persons without work, but their entire social circle, from family to friends, and the economy as well.
In 1882, while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, Matthew Maguire, a native of Paterson, initiated the first Labor Day in the United States. The day has always focused on the vital contribution that workers have made to the nation. The American worker has strengthened our nation, contributed to its prosperity and fostered the development of a free democracy. In no small measure, the American worker has made the American Dream a reality for many.
It was historian James Truslow Adams who, in 1932, coined the phrase “the American Dream.” In his book
The Epic of America, he spoke of it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
The idea of “the American Dream” was not new. Truslow was simply recasting in three words the best-known phrase of
The Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Even Jefferson, who penned these words, borrowed the idea from his close friend Philip Mazzei, an Italian-born patriot and pamphleteer.
As we celebrate Labor Day this year, some may be weary of the attempt to capture the American Dream. Others may question whether or not the dream can come true in our day. But neither approach will ever bring about a substantial change in our condition for the better.
Was it the banks that caused our present economic condition? Was it big business by taking a lion’s share of the profits for executives? Was it the mortgage companies that are to blame? Or the oil industry? How much culpability lies with credit card companies or with Wall Street? Was it too much government regulation or too little? Ultimately, it is not simply an economic structure or a financial institution, but individuals who must shoulder the responsibility for our economic crisis. At the root of our woes is the loss of the moral fiber that once held us together.
Amid the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt rallied Americans calling for “the same spirit that has led previous generations to face down war, depression — and fear itself.” Today, something more profound is needed. One year ago, at the time of the collapse of American banks, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that “Justice cannot be created in the world solely through good economic models, necessary though they are. Justice is achieved only if there are upright people. And there cannot be just people without the humble, daily work of conversion of hearts, of creating justice in hearts” (
Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, the Hall of Blessings, February 26, 2009).
Selfishness, greed, dishonesty and pride work themselves out in the economy and affect everyone. For America to come out of our present economic crisis, there is needed a true conversion of heart for each of us. Just people make a just society.