Americans love to contemplate — and legislatively promote, to whatever degree possible — the virtue of hard work. Here in the United States, we already work more hours per year than our English- speaking counterparts in Britain, Canada and Australia — not to mention those enviable denizens of European social democracies, who enjoy the kind of leisure time only our highest-paid workers can afford.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that several new pro-work policy ideas are enjoying attention on the left and the right. On the right, work requirements for Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance represent the latest conservative effort to make sure Americans work for any benefits they receive. Meanwhile, on the left, the idea of a federal job guarantee has gained increasing attention, showing up in statements from the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
In all of these proposals, much is made of the special dignity that comes through work. In President Trump’s executive order outlining his desire that work requirements be attached to assistance programs, he called upon the federal government to elevate “principles that are central to the American spirit — work, free enterprise, and safeguarding human and economic resources.” In his column defending Booker’s job guarantee proposal, Bloomberg News writer Noah Smith pointed out that “jobs provide a kind of dignity that traditional welfare programs, or even innovative new ones like universal basic income, probably don’t.”
It isn’t that the programs are tonally identical. The right’s approach to making sure everyone who receives government aid works has always seemed vaguely punitive, while the left’s interest in providing jobs — and thus an income — to people who have neither rings of Rooseveltian solidarity with the victims of an unfair economy. Regardless, these pro-work programs inevitably fixate on work as a provider of independence or self-esteem. With just a little nudge in the direction of the labor market, one concludes, people who feel disempowered and diminished by their economic situation would find themselves newly dignified, self-sufficient, proud.
And maybe that is the case: Trump isn’t wrong, after all, in identifying work as a cardinal American virtue — and infractions against virtue are the stuff of vice. But in terms of our wider cultural context, it doesn’t appear to me that a lack of respect for work is the No. 1 threat to American dignity. If we undervalue anything to the detriment of dignity, it is the virtue of rest.
Many victories of the labor movement were premised on the precise notion that the majority of one’s life shouldn’t be made up of work: It was the socialist Robert Owen who championed the eight-hour workday, coining the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” For Owen, it was important not only that workers had time to sleep after a hard day’s labor, but also that they had time to pursue their own interests — to enjoy leisure activities, cultivate their own projects, spend time with their families and so forth. After all, a life with nothing but work and sleep is akin to slavery, and not particularly dignified. As Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs recently told Politico: “Work does have some value and some dignity, but I don’t think working 14 hours and not being able to pay your bills, or working two jobs and not being able — there’s nothing inherently dignified about that.”
Nor is there anything dignified in parents being unable to take time off to care for and bond with infants, or in the elderly being forced to avoid retirement for lack of funds, or from pitting the two needs against each other, as a recent policy plan has proposed. Nor is there much dignity in pouring all of one’s energy into the purposes of another — which is what it generally means to work for a boss — with little time or money spared to learn or contemplate or travel or enjoy oneself. And in the United States, neither parental leave nor retirement nor vacation is a sure thing: In 2016, for instance, more than half of workers left vacation days unused, either unable to afford time off or unwilling to risk disappointing their employers.
There’s a balance to be struck where it comes to work and rest, but in the United States, values and laws are already slanted drastically in favor of work. I would advise those concerned about Americans’ dignity, freedom and independence to not focus on compelling work for benefits or otherwise trying to marshal people into jobs when what they really need are health care, housing assistance, unemployment benefits and so forth. Instead, we should focus more of our political energies on making sure that American workers have the dignity of rest, the freedom to enjoy their lives outside of labor and independence from the whims of their employers.
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