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An Attempt to Raise the Subject in 2009

In my opinion, it’s possible to reduce poverty by having an economy focused on producing useful goods and services which also distributes opportunities for work and income quite broadly. As technology introduces production efficiencies, jobs are lost. Government regulation to reduce work time would help to counteract that effect.

However, both government and business have adamantly opposed shorter work time. They prefer to put economically disadvantaged people on welfare than improve wages and hours. They build, in other words, a “social safety net” for people who “fall through the cracks” - a growing number of people these days - instead of reforming the structure of jobs.

Both government and non-profit organizations have arisen to administer relief programs that aid the poor. One of the largest private non-profits is Catholic Charities. In 2010, this organization celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding.

Catholic Charities U.S.A. has convened a series of summit meetings across the country to organize support for its goal of cutting poverty in the United States by fifty percent in ten years. The first such meeting, titled “Centennial Leadership Summit Working to Reduce Poverty in America”, was held at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, the nation’s largest college for women. This day-long conference was held on Monday, April 20, 2009.

Since a newspaper report suggested that the meeting would “engage civic leaders, elected officials, philanthropists, service providers, and the public (possibly including me) in a conversation that seeks to identify how to cut poverty”, I thought that I, as a long-time advocate of shorter working hours, might try to introduce that theme into the discussion.

I created a 30” by 40” sign on which, in large lettering, the words “End poverty through a SHORTER WORKWEEK” were displayed. I also produced fifty half-page flyers in case I had the opportunity to hand them to persons entering the building where the conference would take place. These flyers read:

“ Do we want to actually end poverty or do we want to perpetuate ending poverty? If the former, we should think in terms of restructuring the economy to provide full employment with an adequate wage. The economy needs to be restructured because technological advances over the years tend to displace workers. This can be offset by a commensurate shortening of work time. In short, it’s time for a 4-day, 32-hour workweek. The change is long overdue.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Senate appointed a Special Committee on Unemployment to study the effects of automation. That committee was chaired by a man who previously had taught at St. Thomas College in St. Paul. He was Senator Eugene McCarthy. Senator McCarthy favored shorter work time as a remedy for unemployment. We should consider doing likewise. The religious community could, if it wished, make that a reality. Please consider the option."

I thought the reference to former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy might be helpful because he had been a professor at St. Thomas College (to which the College of St. Catherine was a sister institution) before being elected to Congress in 1948 and because Senator McCarthy and I had coauthored a book, published in 1989, titled “Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work.” Senator McCarthy exemplified the idealism and courage of Roman Catholics of that day seeking to create a more humane world. His endorsement of the shorter-workweek approach to employment problems might also, I thought, find favor with religious activists today.

The conference agenda was not particularly encouraging. The presentations were made mainly by professionals in organizations that were devoted to reducing poverty. The Senior Vice President of Social Policy and Government Affairs, Catholic Charities U.S.A., gave the presentation titled “work to reduce poverty in your community.” The “Community Response” was given by the Executive Director of Catholic Charities in St. Cloud (Minnesota), a current member of the St. Paul City Council, and the “district liaison for Homeless and Highly Mobile students, Minneapolis public schools”. There did not seem to be a place in the program for uncredentialed community members to speak their mind.

My idea was to stand with my sign at the entrance to the "Henrietta Schmoll Rauenhorst Hall, Coeur de Catherine” building on the St. Catherine campus where the conference would take place for about a half hour before the conference began (9:30 to 10:00 a.m.). Hopefully, that would inspire conversation about the shorter-workweek proposal. If all went well, I might hand out most of my flyers to conference attendees. Maybe some of them would ask the conference presenters a question about the topic I had raised, or else they might visit the web site.

I am not familiar with the campus of the College of St. Catherine. It took me ten to fifteen minutes to find Coeur de Catherine, even knowing its street address. I stationed myself at an entrance to this building for five to ten minutes and displayed my sign. It did not seem that people were using that entrance. I greeted two women who were headed for the conference, but that was all. Then, leaning my sign against the building, I went up to the third floor where registration was taking place. There was no literature table. The conference was ready to begin. Most attendees were already in the building.

I had obviously blown the opportunity. Nothing remained for me except to go back downstairs, pick up my sign, and walk back the the car, parked three blocks away on a side street where reserve parking does not apply.

As I passed the office of campus security, three officers approached me. They said they had received several complaints about a man with a sign who might be part of a protest demonstration. I admitted that, yes, I was the man with the sign. I said I thought the meeting was open to the public. My purpose was not so much to protest but to add something to the conversation. In any event, I was leaving the campus.

This explanation did not quite satisfy the lead officer. He wanted to know if I frequently visited the campus. No, I did not. Then he asked me to produce identification. I handed my Minnesota drivers license to a female officer who took a photograph of it. More questions seemed to be in the works.

I then pulled several of my half-page flyers out of my pants pocket and gave them to the officer. If anyone wanted to know more about me or my issue, these had my telephone number and the URL of a website about the shorter-workweek issue. That was enough. I was released and went on my way.

No one says that promoting this issue will be easy. Any organization with any influence in the area of ending poverty or another social question will, of course, want to know how the funders view their agenda. Few corporate funders favor the shorter-workweek idea. So unfunded individuals like me have mainly the Internet for spreading the word. Occasionally, if we are lucky, it can also be done face to face.

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