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April 17, 2008 Edition

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Eye on the Capitol
Grand Mom

Income disparity
undermines common good

photo of John Huebscher

Eye on the 

John Huebscher 

Chapter Six of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church speaks to the topic of human work. In its discussion of wages and the rights of workers, the Compendium states the following:

"The economic well-being of a country is not measured exclusively by the quantity of goods it produces but also by taking into account the manner in which they are produced and the level of equity in the distribution of income, which should allow everyone access to what is necessary for their personal development and perfection" (# 303).

Equity in the distribution of income is not the same thing as equality. Church teaching on wages has never argued that all must be paid the same, regardless of their ability or their occupation. But the Catholic tradition is very clear that because work is for humans and not the other way around, all who work deserve a living wage that allows a reasonable opportunity for their fulfillment.

Thus we need to regularly ask if our income distribution is truly equitable. As the gap in earnings between the very rich and the rest of society widens, the greater the urgency for serious public discussion on its social impact.

Recent study findings

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests we need to pay attention to income distribution in Wisconsin. The Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) and the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF) commented on the study last week.

Twenty years ago, Wisconsin ranked fifth in the nation in terms of income distribution. Today, we have fallen to 11th place. From the late 1980s to the middle of this decade, the income of the poorest fifth of our population increased by only seven percent. That of the middle fifth increased by 14 percent, and the income of the richest fifth increased by 36 percent.

In dollar terms, the poorest of our states' families saw their incomes rise by $1,369 during this period. The wealthiest fifth of the population averaged an earnings increase of $31,600.

COWS director Joel Rogers called this inequity a political problem. He noted, "greater inequality feeds on itself." As people become more financially strapped, they become less willing to pay for public goods like education and other services. Such disparity undermines rather than affirms the notion of common sacrifices for the common good.

Possible policy responses

COWS and WCCF offered a number of policy responses to reverse this income disparity. These include:

  • Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to keep up with inflation.

  • Increasing the focus within Wisconsin's workforce development system on education and skill development.

  • Adequately funding the childcare subsidy program for low-income working families.

  • Improving access to affordable health care by promoting awareness of the BadgerCare Plus health insurance program and expanding it to offer coverage to childless low-income adults.

  • Modernizing Wisconsin's unemployment system.

  • Reforming tax policies that place an undue burden on lower income families.

Income inequality is truly a political problem. And it is a political problem with a moral dimension that ought to be a concern for Catholics and others. For such wide disparities in income challenge us to ask: 1) how committed are we to the common good? And, 2) does the way we compensate work uphold or diminish a "preferential option for the poor?"

These questions of social justice issues raised by the report warrant our attention. And the policy responses suggested by the sponsors of that report deserve a close look by the 2009 legislature.

John Huebscher is the executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

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The liberating wheelchair

photo of Audrey Mettel Fixmer

Grand Mom 

Mettel Fixmer 

Is there life after 80? You bet! I have just survived a theater weekend in New York accompanied and pampered by my daughter, Kris (#6), and lived to write the tale.

It was not my first experience with New York theater - our eldest son has lived there for the past 16 years and no trip to New York would be complete without a Broadway play.

This, however, was the first time I didn't have to wrestle with bags and stand in line for half price tickets. Instead, we were traveling with a tour group, Rothberger Travel from Fort Atkinson. It didn't take long for me to adapt to having my bags and tickets handled for me. In fact, it's a way of life to which I could easily become addicted.

Magic passes

Kris had suggested I take along a cane, even though I don't normally walk with one. I knew from experience traveling with my husband that a cane is like a magic wand in an airport. They board you first, along with the babies and small children.

I have already graduated to wheelchairs at airports though, since that long walk from check-in to the departing gate can totally wipe me out before I get on board. A wheelchair is even better than a cane. The person pushing it gets you right to the head of the line with a series of "excuse me's." One would think they were playing "Hail to the Chief" by the way everyone snaps to attention and steps aside.

Dangerous weapons

Security was another thing, though. No respect, no respect! Kris, who flies several times a week, slipped out of her loafers and stepped through the security gate smoothly. Not me. I set off the alarm. I told them about my artificial knees, but the scanner showed something more suspicious. My right hip set off the alarm over and over until finally my weapon was discovered. In my right pocket I carried a rosary.

Everyone knows what a powerful weapon a rosary is. I laughed until I remembered weapons are no laughing matter. The grim-faced woman spent another five minutes scanning my body to be sure I didn't have another one on me.

Escaping the stampede

I carried my cane that night to dinner at Bennihana's of Tokyo and to the theater, where we saw an incredible production of Jersey Boys. Kris became aware that night (painfully, I suspect) that I couldn't quite keep up with the crowd. On the streets of New York you have to get into step with the pack or get stampeded. So the next day she suggested that we borrow a wheelchair from the hotel and she would push me through the streets and the stores. When she saw my expression she quickly added, "Mother, try to think of a wheelchair not as confining, but as liberating."

Wheelchair escapades

The problem was that the only wheelchair available at the hotel was itself handicapped. It had only a right footrest. The left one couldn't be found. So I spent about four hours Saturday and eight hours on Sunday with my body twisted so that both feet could rest on the right footrest.

That wasn't the most frightening, however. The worst was flying at high speed down the sidewalks of New York just inches behind bodies I was approaching at butt level ready to ram into them if anyone should slow down.

Or was it having my grandson, Nick, an inexperienced "pusher," ram me into curbs? Finally someone taught him how to lift the front wheels by pushing down on the handle, but in his enthusiasm he then sent my legs straight up in the air. I, of course, inadvertently let out a scream. This sent Kris and the others into peals of laughter at the look of horror on a woman approaching us who witnessed this "elder abuse."

Highlight of the trip

Despite the three wonderful shows and many fine restaurants and the visit with my son Rob and his family, we both had to admit that a highlight of the trip was undoubtedly attending Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Sunday morning. Kris was enchanted with the many side altars and pushed me down the aisle a second time to get pictures of each of them.

I was delighted with the announcement that among the visitors that day was a group from Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minn., where we had lived and gone to school for many years. It's a small world after all. (And small towns are better than big cities to live in.)

After my "liberating" experience in the wheelchair, I am very surprised to learn that streets and public places still have a long way to go to become truly handicapped accessible. I am more determined than ever to keep exercising, stay fit, and walk on my own two feet as long as possible.

"Grandmom" likes hearing from other senior citizens who enjoy aging -- contact information.

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