Economic justice: the public may be getting the message

by Maureen Fiedler

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I was born in what is now the 26th congressional district of New York (Lockport, NY, to be exact). I can personally attest to the fact that it trends very Republican. That was true even when I was young. My high school graduation speaker was none other than Rep. William Miller. Don't remember him? Well, he was Barry Goldwater's running mate.

So I was thrilled to see my old stomping grounds suddenly elect a Democrat (Kathy Hochul) in order to send a message to the country about health care justice. Medicare was the central issue in that campaign. The Republican candidate, Jane Corwin, had endorsed the budget of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which calls for turning Medicare into a "voucher" system that would put seniors at the mercy of the private insurance market and make good health care unaffordable for many.

The electorate in NY-26, however, voiced a resounding "no." Western New Yorkers voted essentially to retain the current Medicare system which guarantees health care to seniors. The subtext in that campaign, which has not gotten as much attention, is this: find other ways to cut the deficit, like increasing taxes on those who can afford them.

Then there is Wisconsin, where large protests against Gov. Scott Walker's assault on labor rights have moved into the political arena. Several "recall" elections have been scheduled for state senators who voted to do away with collective bargaining for state workers. The polls in Wisconsin are moving strongly against Walker's policies.

And most recently, there is Vermont, -- the Green Mountain State. The governor there just signed into law the nation's first "single payer" health care law. It treats health care as a right -- not a privilege. It covers everyone, excludes no one. It will require some federal government waivers to implement, but it is certainly a beacon of hope.

All these are signs that the public is sorting out the conflicting economic messages floating across the airwaves these days. There has been a lot of rhetoric about "keeping the government out of health care," but when push comes to shove, Medicare -- a 100 percent government-run program -- is wildly popular. Why? It covers all seniors, and it works. Vermont's plan would extend that type of system to everyone in that state.

And it's fair to say that voters in Wisconsin may have warmed to messages about fiscal discipline and deficit control in the 2010 election, but they don't want it at the expense of collective bargaining rights.

Voters across the country seem to be increasingly aware of the growing economic injustices in our system, especially the widening "wealth gap" and efforts to deal with the deficit by cutting programs for the most vulnerable people in our society.

Granted, people of faith who care about justice can differ about the best solutions for problems like the deficit. But when proposals threaten to harm the most vulnerable in our society while rewarding those at the top of the ladder, something doesn't compute on the "justice meter."

Economic justice is a bedrock of Catholic teaching, and indeed a foundational moral principle in most faith traditions. As the 1971 Synod on Justice in the World put it: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel."

It's time to roll out that message again.

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