During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the most crippling form of poverty was seen as the poverty of dignity. To read all the letters and diaries and recollections of the time is to see that the severe economic hardship caused by the loss of a job was often considered temporary and survivable. But what destroyed the human spirit — what petrified people the most — was a loss of dignity caused by the loss of work.
The generation of the Great Depression demonstrated that economic poverty did not permanently cripple, as long as human dignity survived. That kept alive a spirit of hope and will. When a person lost dignity, however, he lost everything. A loss of money is recoverable; a loss of dignity often is not.
The word dignity seems to have gone out of favor. Politicians, educators, and media commentators rarely use that word very much. They talk about income and rights and inequality and discrimination, but almost never dignity.
Yet dignity has a much longer history in the human lexicon than any of those other words. Over centuries of human existence, dignity defined the highest of human ideals and pursuits. The work one does, the way one provides for and protects one’s family, has historically been a crucial ingredient of human dignity.
For centuries, work has been bound with human dignity. But that connection appears to have weakened. Once seen as the party of working people, the Democratic Party has evolved into a party that considers work to be a burden, inconvenient, and even degrading. Such attitudes come out in the party’s shifted economic and social agendas.
President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, strongly supported by nearly all Democrats, sought to make more permanent certain unconditional government grants to adults with children, regardless of whether those adults were working. These grants were instituted by the American Rescue Plan, enacted by the Democrats last March, which changed the child tax credit to automatic taxpayer grants to adults with children, with no work requirement.
Admittedly, eliminating the child tax credit work requirement recognized the problems involved in finding a job during the Covid shutdowns, but the job market is now wide open. Therefore, as Republicans argue, the recent expiration of the Covid-inspired child subsidies presents an opportunity to return to the original scheme, which included a work requirement.
How Dismissing Work Brings Oppression
This dismissal of work, ironically, reflects an attitude that infused the Great Society social welfare programs instituted during the 1960s. But because those programs proved disastrous to people who became trapped in them, the 1996 welfare reform sought to reinstate work requirements and thereby restore work to an important value in social policy.
Despite the success of the 1996 reform, Democrats now want to return to the work-dismissive status of the 1960s. Even more ironically, this dismissal of work occurs when jobs and work opportunities are plentiful.
When a society dismisses and disregards a foundation of human dignity, it travels a path toward inhumanity and oppression. One consistent characteristic of oppressive, totalitarian regimes is the disregard for human dignity. Such regimes talk about income and rights and inequality and discrimination, but they completely disregard human dignity.
Throughout all of human history, dignity has been tied up with work. It is not money or consumption or leisure that confer dignity, it is work, because work builds the foundation of human independence, allowing individuals to set the terms of how they and their families will live. Work is the only way through which individuals can take responsibility for their lives and the lives of their families.
Leftists No Longer See Value in Work
But Democrats seem to look at work as an injustice that no person, especially someone who is poor or of minority status, should have to endure. That dismissive attitude toward work perhaps explains why Democrats now struggle with the blue-collar and working-class vote. Democrats of course claim that these voters have become racist, but perhaps a more accurate reason they have left the party is because of Democrats’ degrading view of work.
The current leftist view of work has been solidifying for decades. Expanding the opportunities for work has increasingly taken a back seat to finding new protected categories of people and undermining social traditions. Indeed, the left’s focus seems to be on government benefit programs rather than job creation.
But it is only work that can create true individual independence and self-sustainability, as well as conferring the pride of accomplishment and contribution. On the other hand, maybe the left does not want independent, self-sustaining individuals; maybe the left wants the majority of society ultimately dependent on government.
Work, and the habits nurtured by work, have throughout human history provided the means by which people can acquire certain vital virtues, such as self-discipline, self-restraint, thrift, and delayed gratification. Work fosters ambition and responsibility. The constitutional framers believed that a prosperous democracy required a virtuous citizenry, and that virtue proceeded from work.
Left Wants Government Dependence
As one Democrat member of Congress said during a hearing about the lack of work requirements in Build Back Better, mention of the “so-called dignity of work” is “like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard.” This derision of one of the most foundational virtues underlying our society and democracy is what is most troubling about the Democrats.
If there is no dignity in work, then there should be no work, since no one should be forced to perform undignified activities. But if no one works, how are people to become virtuous citizens independent of their government? If no one works, where are all the tax dollars to come from?
What is most troubling about the Democratic agenda and the liberal outlook is not the price tag of their social and economic programs. What is most troubling is how the left continually seeks to fundamentally transform American society and culture.
At the very center of society is the individual, but the left wants to remove the individual from that role; the left wants government at the center. One way to do that is to remove the ability of the individual to serve as an independent foundation of government and society.
Degrading the dignity of work will certainly achieve that goal. Then, once dignity is removed, and then work degraded, all individuals will indeed be alike — they will all be dependent on the government to tell them what “rights” they have and what “benefits” they will receive. Once that occurs, will there even be any questions as to how those government beneficiaries are to vote?
Patrick Garry is professor of law at the University of South Dakota, senior fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and author of The False Promise of Big Government (ISI Books).