The Word from Lansing: Public Policy Decisions Should ‘Go to the Margins,’ Too

The Michigan State Capitol building

Pope Francis has challenged Catholics to be a Church that goes to the margins of society and to seek out and minister to those who have been forgotten or cast off by the rest of the world.

Protecting vulnerable and marginalized populations is a principle that Michigan Catholic Conference articulates when advocating for or against public policy at the state Capitol. This preferential option for the poor is a theme of Catholic social teaching that guides MCC’s advocacy on behalf of children in foster care, homeless and runaway youth, women who seek out abortion, incarcerated individuals, as well as refugees and immigrants—whether they are documented or not.

In many cases, MCC’s position on legislation is determined by how the policy protects the vulnerable—or fails to do so.

An example of this in practice recently occurred when Michigan lawmakers voted to advance two very different legislative packages, both of which MCC had been working on and had spoken to. One bill had to do with capping interest charged by payday lenders, which MCC supported. The other had to do with compensated surrogacy contracts, which MCC opposed.

As referenced, a majority of lawmakers supported both to advance the policies. The Conference’s position on both was grounded in how those measures protected certain vulnerable individuals.

On the surrogacy legislation, MCC opposed the bills out of concern for cash-strapped women who turn to surrogacy to support themselves and their families. Some women may see the tens of thousands of dollars they can earn as a surrogate to pay bills or escape debt. It’s a situation ripe for exploitation.

Yet lawmakers failed to consider the increased risk of exploitation of these vulnerable women by voting to allow compensated surrogacy contracts in Michigan, despite many countries across the globe that condemn surrogacy as a violation of human rights and human dignity. Sadly, the Legislature took up and passed surrogacy legislation even after Pope Francis made worldwide headlines calling for a global ban on the practice.

Turning to payday lending, MCC supported the bill because it aims to address the predatory lending practices that have disadvantaged the individuals who take out payday loans, who are usually already at or near poverty. Payday loan recipients often end up taking on more debt—such as a new payday loan—to repay the old one, resulting in a devastating spiral of debt for people already struggling financially.

The legislation MCC supported would cap annual interest at 36 percent, well below the nearly 400 percent annual interest that lenders would charge borrowers. The goal of the legislation is to protect already-vulnerable people who use these services from further harm.

Whether it’s vulnerable women who turn to surrogacy, or low-income individuals who turn to payday loans to help ends meet, MCC encourages public policymakers to consider how proposed legislation impacts the human dignity and well-being of the most vulnerable members of our community. The basic moral test of society is how well the vulnerable among us are doing, and that same standard should also apply to the public policy decisions of legislators.