News Story

The Politics of Labor, Welfare, and Inequality

July 1, 2013—In his research and in the classroom, Assistant Professor of Government Rev. Matthew Carnes, S.J., untangles the complex politics that underlie labor policy, social welfare, and inequality issues.

Focusing his research on Latin America, Father Carnes explores “where stable labor relations come from and how [they] undergird all the other measures we have around social protections and pensions,” he said. Many Latin American countries are developing new programs to balance inequality and help workers in informal sectors. “Latin America has been a pioneer in introducing what are called non-contributory benefits,” he said.

“These are [benefits] that are not paid out of your lifetime contributions through work,” he continued. These conditional cash transfers tie welfare to “doing good things in life that we wouldn’t normally provide state benefits for,” such as keeping a child in school or having a child vaccinated.

“It’s starting to diminish the level of inequality in Brazil, which is one of the most unequal countries in the world,” he explained. Although these cash transfers are small, between $50 and $100, Father Carnes sees Brazil’s program as “an investment in human capital for the next generation,” allowing a parent to choose between sending her child to school or to work. “These are the marginal edges that really make a difference,” he continued.

These reforms only happen, however, when the right factors—leaders, political parties, and public attitudes—align. “My research shows that one factor is the dissatisfaction of previous beneficiaries with the system,” he explained. In Brazil, those citizens dissatisfied with efforts to privatize certain benefits became more willing to include others in the system if it meant receiving better coverage themselves.

Father Carnes believes that he can better communicate the choices that politicians and citizens make every day if students understand and compare the political factors that affect labor policy, welfare, and inequality.

Students in his courses study the variation of political behavior over time, across the Unites States, and among different countries. “There are lots of other ways the world can be, [which shows students] we can create the world we want to live in,” he explained.

Political choices will be the focus of his new course, The Politics of Inequality, which he recently designed for graduate students and hopes later to offer to undergraduates. “I’m convinced that inequality is the issue of the next century,” he said. “We have 1 in 5 children in the United States growing up in poverty and 16 percent of the population living below the poverty line. It’s not something that happens naturally; it’s something we actually choose.”

According to Father Carnes, many political choices affect the levels of inequality—from how much we tax individuals and corporations to how much we fund public education or how we defund welfare programs. “At the end of the day, society gets to make that choice. We are a democratic system, which gives us mechanisms for choosing. But I think we need to recognize it as a choice and talk about those mechanisms,” he explained.

Father Carnes acknowledges that inequality raises complicated and contentious issues, but he also sees that students are eager to tackle these issues in his classroom. “I push them to be constantly thinking and rethinking and challenging ideas,” he said. “I think that leads to a dynamic class setting.”

By showing students how political choices have created the world we live in, Father Carnes hopes they understand that their actions can also change it. “Students have this real enthusiasm with trying to a make a difference. I point to the fact that there are differences and those differences are human made, so if they want to make a difference they can.”

—Elizabeth Wilson