How Catholics can employ hope in times of unemployment, economic uncertainty

After turning in his ID as a temporarily employed U.S. Census taker, a 25-year-old Long Island, N.Y., man mused rather philosophically on his job prospects. Despite the previous year’s unemployment, during which time he submitted dozens of resumes for jobs to which he was well-suited while reaping a single telephone interview in response, he claims a “fatalistic” optimism for himself: “Sooner or later it will happen,” he says.

To increase his marketability, this college graduate has enrolled at a technical school which, though providing him with new skills and additional educational debt, has not yet translated into a paycheck. Having moved back in with his parents, he is at this point not particularly interested in whether that seemingly mythical paycheck comes from a white or blue collar job; he just wants to work. He recently had hopes for a job as a security guard, but was deemed overqualified. 

Current U.S. unemployment numbers have hovered for months at near 10 percent; underemployment is nearly twice that. Teenage unemployment stands at 26 percent, and for recent college graduates things are not much better. One recent Pew Research poll found that nearly 37 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 have been jobless or underemployed during the current recession. Their high unemployment numbers are a kind of Catch-22 for new workers; a market flooded with displaced workers means that even entry-level positions — technical or corporate — are grabbed by experienced workers who, in theory, could be earning far more but will take anything they can get. Thus breadwinners and experienced workers find themselves undervalued — often working full time while unable to meet their most basic obligations — and new entrants into the work force continue to lack the practical experience they need. 

The lack of post-collegiate jobs means a further burden for middle-aged Americans. Like the former Census taker, unemployed young adults are “boomeranging” back home, and many parents find themselves paying the student loans they had assumed their educated sons and daughters would be covering from new earnings. 

As 28 percent of all households claim at least one member currently seeking a full-time job, budgets are being strained and retirement savings are either being plundered or postponed to meet these additional bills, appetites, insurances and more. To date no studies have yet been done to discover the emotional impact of this new adult-on-adult financial dependence, but postmodern notions of family, respect, privacy and responsibility will surely need adjusting. 

In such circumstances, to say the outlook is bleak would seem an understatement, and the most recent statements out of Washington indicate that unemployment will stay at or above 9 percent until 2012. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development supports the extension of unemployment benefits, but they know that no handout can replace the sense of pride one gets by accomplishing things on one’s own, and no reasonable person believes that such water-treading assistance can take the place of real earnings, which are about much more than money. When people are productively using their own gifts and ingenuity to forge their own way, they have reason to hold up their heads, to defer failure and to pursue their dreams and goals. 

Writes the USCCB on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: 

“Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. Employers contribute to the common good through the services or products they provide and by creating jobs that uphold the dignity and rights of workers. ... Workers also have responsibilities — to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, to treat employers and co-workers with respect, and to carry out their work in ways that contribute to the common good.” 

Honorable, honest employment has a spiritual component that positively affects both self and society; just as the fisherman who catches his own supper will always feel better about himself than the one who must beg for scraps, encouragement trumps condescension. But when even low-wage “survival” jobs are hard to find, the whole society is stressed. Earned wages promote not only material wealth but a sense of self-sufficiency — of control over ones choices; this in turn generates hope for the future. 

And hope is not simply a feeling. Hope touches the spiritual realm. It says, “awake, O Sleeper, arise from death!” Hope is the builder of bridges, the tamer of winds, the harnesser of ideas and possibilities. A poor man with hope is immeasurably richer than a wealthy man without it, because he carries within him the spark that can alight a thousand tomorrows. 

Without hope, without that interior sense of capability, a society forced into an exterior dependency will begin to lose heart. It is not surprising that in the same week we read headlines announcing a greater use of food stamps by Americans than at any time in the nation’s history, we also read reports that alcohol consumption in the United States is at a 25-year high. 

Joblessness performs a spiritual battery upon the populace that can lead to despair, which St. Thomas Aquinas defined as “not only a sin, but also the origin of other sins.” 

How may one prevent falling into despair in these difficult times? Kitty’s attitude may hold a clue. A graduate student at a leading university, she has managed to remain employed throughout the recession, even when that meant commuting from New Jersey to New York in order to keep a $9.50 an hour job as a head cashier in a bookstore chain, before finally finding an entry-level position in her chosen field. “You get to a point where a job is a job,” she says. “You have to just release the expectations, and buckle down.” 

“Release the expectations” is good advice, especially if one can do so with a willing heart. To release one’s expectations is not to say “I give up,” but rather, “I am willing.” But willingness only comes with genuine trust. It comes when we can say “Thy will be done,” and then actually surrender, instead of preparing a treaty. It means being willing to be led where one might not instinctively go. 

It is heartening to consider that the saints have all been willing, even when they did not understand what was being asked of them, or why; in their willingness they have discovered God’s purpose and their own, to great effect. 

Perhaps the greatest example of such productive willingness may be found in the Blessed Virgin Mary. When willingness enters into one’s head and heart, every possibility comes rushing to the fore, and there is room for miracles. 

Still seeking a position after seven months without a job, 55-year-old Michael adds, “I’d like to tell others who are unemployed and despairing that who you are in God’s eyes is who you are, period. If, for whatever reason, nobody’s willing to pay you for what you can do for them, know that you are still God’s beloved child and that, if you seek his Kingship over you first, you will be given what you need.” 

Willingness and trust begin with prayer, and prayer has power. When everything is falling apart, prayer holds. Anyone of us can suddenly find ourselves out of work, and looking at job opportunities with failing hope and a growing sense of powerlessness that can truly affect the body, mind and spirit. 

Considering Mary’s example of willingness, and understanding the power of the Rosary which she gave us through St. Dominic, that devotion may be precisely the place for us to begin to pray. Those who are employed might offer a Rosary in thanksgiving for their circumstance, or for the intentions of the unemployed, or for the distressed nation as a whole. Those who are living through the difficult task of job-seeking may find the following meditation of particular use. As ever, the Mysteries of the Rosary help us to identify with Christ — the King who was in all things willing — and join our circumstances to his, that all may be One. 

Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer to First Things, where she blogs as The Anchoress, and is the Catholic Portal Manager at Patheos.com.