We Shouldn’t Denigrate the Diginity of Work, Even Accidentally


Paul Krugman writes today about the Republican insistence that when they oppose safety net programs, they’re doing it because they really care about the poor. Paul Ryan, for example, says that Obamacare is bad because it reduces incentives to work: “Inducing a person not to work who is on the low-income scale, not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising their income, joining the middle class, this means fewer people will do that.” Here’s Krugman:

Let’s talk, in particular, about dignity.

It’s all very well to talk vaguely about the dignity of work; but the idea that all workers can regard themselves as equal in dignity despite huge disparities in income is just foolish. When you’re in a world where 40 money managers make as much as 300,000 high school teachers, it’s just silly to imagine that there will be any sense, on either side, of equal dignity in work.

….Now, one way to enhance the dignity of ordinary workers is through, yes, entitlements: make it part of their birthright, as American citizens, that they get certain basics such as a minimal income in retirement, support in times of unemployment, and essential health care.

But the Republican position is that none of these things should be provided, and that if somehow they do get provided, they should come only at the price of massive government intrusion into the recipient’s personal lives — making sure that you don’t take advantage of health reform to work less, requiring that you undergo drug tests to receive unemployment benefits or food stamps, and so on.

In short, while conservatives may preach the dignity of work, their actual agenda is to deny lower-income workers as much dignity — and personal freedom — as possible.

There’s so much here that I agree with. Massive levels of inequality are indeed corrosive to both dignity and a basic sense of fair play. Making certain entitlements universal is indeed a way of enhancing dignity. And the endless Republican efforts to shame the poor are simply loathsome.

And yet….I really hate to see liberals disparage the value of work, even if it’s only implicit, as it is here. Even people who hate their jobs take satisfaction in the knowledge that they’re paying their way and providing for their families. People who lose their jobs usually report intense stress and feelings of inadequacy even if money per se isn’t an imminent problem (perhaps because a spouse works, perhaps because they’re drawing an unemployment check). Most people want to work, and most people also want to believe that their fellow citizens are working. It’s part of the social contract. As corrosive as inequality can be, a sense of other people living off the dole can be equally corrosive.

I know, I know: Krugman wasn’t trying to advocate a life of government-supported sloth. I’m not trying to pretend he was. And yet….we should be careful about this stuff. Work is important for dignity, both at a personal level and a broader societal level. We all acknowledge this when we talk about economic policy, making it clear that our goal is to attack high unemployment and create an economy that provides a job for everyone. We should acknowledge it just as much when the talk gets more personal.

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