Christian respondents to a recent poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation were divided about whether personal behavior or circumstance plays the bigger role in contributing to poverty. Since it’s hard to see how the same answer could explain every case, the more interesting aspect of the discussion on the Christian approach to poverty might be the two premises on which respondents agreed.
First, it’s agreed: Where poverty exists, Christians are called to help. “Regardless of their personal beliefs about what makes a person poor, almost everyone who discussed the question with The Post said that their church teaches them to help individuals who are in need and that their congregation works hard at putting those teachings into action,” The Post reported. In response to the clear mandate of the Gospel, “Churches of every denomination and political persuasion run food banks, soup kitchens and shelters.”
The Catholic Church remains one of the leading global actors on the frontlines against poverty. It’s hard to think of any other body that provides as many social services to the poor as it does.
But a second underlying assumption can be teased out from comments about personal effort: Respondents know that work lifts people, and potentially entire communities, out of poverty. This is why Pope Francis repeatedly insists that social assistance, while right and necessary, is inadequate. People need income for basic necessities and to support their families, but they also need to experience the dignity that comes from meaningful work.
Speaking to laborers in Sardinia early in his pontificate, Francis called for “a culture of work, as opposed to that of welfare.” “Work is a very important factor for the dignity of the person; work must be guaranteed if there is to be a genuine promotion of the person. This is a task that belongs to the whole of society.”
The pope has gone on to emphasize this throughout his papacy. While the Church recognizes the need for a modest safety net, job creation is another part of the equation. An important tenet of the Church’s social teaching is that people need work in order to flourish. It’s not just a matter of paying the bills, but of honing skills, expressing creativity, and experiencing the joy of exercising a talent and giving to and receiving from the community.
Job creation requires the imagination, innovation — and in challenging economies, guts — of entrepreneurs and business people. As Francis told the Sardinian workers, “Great merit is recognized [in] those entrepreneurs that, despite everything, have not stopped committing themselves, investing and risking themselves to guarantee employment.”
On other occasions, the pope has referred to business at its best as “a noble vocation,” and here we begin to understand why. It takes courage — especially when an economy is struggling — to put your skills and capital on the line to start a business that can both serve customers and employ others.
While news outlets reported a drop in unemployment this month, job growth hasn’t reached everyone. At home in our nation’s capital, the unemployment rate remains about twice the national rate. Clearly we can do better.
Where do jobs come from? Overwhelmingly from small and medium-sized businesses. According to the Small Business Administration, from 1992-2013, small businesses accounted for 63% of new jobs. As such, these businesses play a vital role not only in the economy, but — due to the moral dimension of work — in the flourishing of individuals and neighborhoods.
Small businesses deserve our support if we are serious about job creation. That’s why this September 20th the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, in partnership with Boston’s Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), will welcome more than 100 small businesses from the city and surrounding neighborhoods to participate in the Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC) program for the first time in Washington, D.C.
ICIC was born after a student asked Michael Porter, the distinguished Harvard Business School professor, if his business strategies could work in the student’s distressed neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles. The student began with an important premise: People have talent and capacity for success no matter where they live. How can entrepreneurs in marginalized communities be connected to the coaching, capital investment, and business networks that others come by more readily?
The ICCC program was designed to help small businesses grow and thrive by providing urban entrepreneurs with practical tools including executive education, coaching, and access to capital investors. Since 2005, more than 1,000 participants in cities like Los Angeles, Memphis, Chicago, and Philadelphia have raised $1.4 billion and created more than 12,000 jobs. Our hope is that by next year, more than 100 small businesses here in Washington will be better positioned for growth and new employment opportunities.
For Christians, job creation is a direct expression of our commitment not only to alleviate poverty, but to encourage individuals and communities to thrive. We can make Pope Francis’s vision of an inclusive economy — where no one is shut out of the market, but everyone is invited into it — a reality.
Bill Bowman is dean of the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is president and CEO of Core Values Group LLC, a consulting firm that works to empower employees to help them grow in human virtues most important to their organization’s success.