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ND Votes examines political and theological stances on income inequality

| Friday, February 26, 2016

ND Votes ’16 hosted a “Pizza, Pop and Politics” discussion on Thursday evening in Geddes Hall to examine what presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called “the great moral issue of our time … and the great economic issue of our time” — income inequality.

The event featured lectures from Christina Wolbrecht, associate professor of political science and director of the Rooney Center for American Democracy, and Margaret Pfeil, associate professor of theology and co-founder of St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker House in South Bend.

Margaret Pfeil, who holds a joint appointment in the theology department, spoke at an event about income inequality in terms of Catholic social thought and race.Caitlyn Jordan
Margaret Pfeil, who holds a joint appointment in the theology department, spoke at an event about income inequality in terms of Catholic social thought and race.

Wolbrecht kicked off the discussion, describing the rise in income inequality in America.

“In the post-war period, after World War II … all groups slowly made gains in income. People could expect that over time, their real income would grow,” she said. “That has changed since around 1980. What we have seen is that incomes for people in the middle … have stagnated — same with the poor. But income growth for people above the 95th percentile has increased fairly dramatically.”

Wolbrecht then examined specific policies in American politics that she said have contributed to this inequality, focusing especially on issues relating to housing. The application of certain tax breaks that apply only to homeowners has proved to increase inequality, while also being politically popular, she said.

“[These policies] are not only not progressive, as in they help out the poorest, but they are regressive. A lot more of the benefits accrue to the wealthy,” Wolbrecht said.

Wolbrecht concluded her talk by addressing the possible effects of income inequality on the American political system.

“[Income inequality] can undermine the collective, in one sense. Democratic politics is that we’re all in one boat, and that we are working towards not just making ourselves better, but our community better,” she said.

Wolbrecht also discussed how inequality could impact popular participation.

“The other concern is that [income inequality] breeds apathy, that politics really just serve the 1 percent,” she said.

After Wolbrecht, Pfeil spoke on income inequality in terms of Catholic social teaching, and also income inequality as it relates to race.

“The ethical issues raised from the perspective of Catholic social teaching are structural in nature,” she said. “These structures, objectively speaking, are morally skewed because they violate the standards of justice, specifically distributive justice, commutative justice and social justice.”

Pfeil referenced St. Ambrose, who said, “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor person, you are giving back to him what is his.”


Pfeil also discussed the impact race has on inequality.

“The typical white family earns $50,400, while the typical black family earns $32,028, and the typical latino family earns $36,840,” she said. “Disparities in homeownership fall upon racial and ethnic lines as well — 73 percent of whites own a home, compared to 37 percent of Latinos and 45 percent of blacks.”

Pfeil concluded the talk by reiterating the words of Pope Francis on the subject.

“When a society … is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely ensure tranquility … because the socioeconomic system is unjust,” Pfeil said.

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About Lucas Masin-Moyer

Lucas Masin-Moyer is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in Political Science and American Studies. He serves as Assistant Managing Editor, lived in Morrissey Manor and hails from Telford, Pennsylvania.

Contact Lucas