The Work Respect Gap

We need to recover the idea of the intrinsic dignity of any kind of honest work.

Tennessee miner Wayne Gipson with his 3-year-old daughter Tabitha
Tennessee miner Wayne Gipson with his 3-year-old daughter Tabitha (photo: The U.S. National Archives)

Oren Cass’s new book, The Once and Future Worker, seeks to recapture the centrality of work (and, by extension, the worker) in social and economic policy. I’ve suggested Catholics should be interested in his analysis, because that perspective dovetails with the centrality Catholic social thought attaches to labor, and have promised to comment on some of Cass’s thoughts for readers.

The place to start is in recovering a culture of work. I agree with St. John Paul II (and also, paradoxically, Antonio Gramsci) about the primacy of culture: politics and economics are important, but it’s ultimately culture that often shapes and drives history. And, like Cass, I think we’ve suffer from an attenuated, if not lost, culture of work.

It’s not that our culture doesn’t suffer from its workaholism. Compared to many societies, Americans put it more hours on the job and take fewer days of vacation from it. But that’s not my point.

What I – and Cass – want to get it is the loss of the centrality of working as part of our culture.

Cass calls it a “respect gap.” It’s a paradox of our contemporary non-judgmental culture that while we might applaud behavior we deem “good,” we are unwilling to label its opposite “bad.” Example: we might value a young man and woman marrying and having children, but we hesitate to disvalue a young man or woman having children out-of-wedlock.

The same problem, claims Cass, applies to work. We applaud somebody who dutifully finds, keeps and works at a job, but we are less willing to criticize somebody who does not find, keep or work at a job.

There are, of course, factors beyond an individual’s control that inhibit their ability to find, keep or work at a job, and some of those factors are of social or legal making. They should be addressed. But there are factors under an individual’s control, and they cannot just be politely passed over.

As Cass puts it, “…if we want people to work, then we should want to maintain a large ‘respect gap’ between idleness and work by lowering one’s value while raising the other’s: reprobation for the failure to engage in productive activity as an active drain on society that harms families and communities, coupled with approbation for productive activity as not just the absence of idleness but rather a major positive contribution to the wider world.”

Cass notes many ways that we fail to do this. One is simply cultural: when many people ask, “what do you do?” it’s often just a conversational space filler. It often serves to rank and create hierarchies, especially when one side can feel their job is better. It’s especially an unspoken background in the space between manufacturing and knowledge economy jobs, even as once it divided white-collar from blue-collar employment.

But it’s illegitimate. “Waiters, truck drivers, retail clerks, plumbers, secretaries, and others all spend their days helping people all around them and filling roles crucial to the community. They do hard, unglamorous work for limited pay to support themselves and their families. Why shouldn’t they be eager to share this information with their conversation partners?” Why shouldn’t they be proud?

But it’s not just in the establishment of conversational pecking orders that this “work respect gap” plays a role. I’ve been in enough conversations where my conversation partners have talked about economic transition and why we need not worry about policies that would retain, say, manufacturing jobs, because “America is beyond that” and “we don’t need those kinds of jobs anymore.”

Well, let me dissent: we do, because even the great IT manager needs a pair of shoes and the shoemaker needs a job if he’s to buy his manager’s computer. A just society is one that takes care of all its members, not one which things of some as disposable “temporary” casualties amid the “creative destruction” of laissez-faire capitalism (whose advocates usually have an uncanny knack about winding up on the “right” side).

So, Cass and I would agree that we need first to recover the idea of the intrinsic dignity of any kind of honest work. Any kind of honest work deserves recognition, support and the consideration of policymakers.

But Cass recognizes that there are lots of other places where our culture has undermined that valuation, where it has leveled the “respect gap” between work and non-work. Several years ago, I reviewed a book on Clinton welfare reform policies by Jesuit Thomas Massaro, in which he repeatedly insisted that efforts to tie “welfare to workfare” were somehow unjust because they applied this preferential valuation to work. Now, I don’t deny that “make work” projects are often a waste of time, but negating the nexus between work and one’s economic lot is typically neither in the individual’s nor society’s interests.

The same issue came out a few years back when some states sought to limit what recipients could use welfare money for. Kansas wanted to bar using those dollars for alcohol or tobacco; Missouri thought of banning junk (cookies, soda) or luxury (steak) foods. Washington Post commentator Dana Milbank called it “humiliating the poor.” Others turned it into a “rich versus poor” dichotomy: why must “poor” welfare recipients have limits on what they can do with “their” money when “middle class” recipients of government benefits (like tax deductions for state and local property taxes) can do what they like with their refunds? (Maybe because it’s the latter’s money that they’re getting back?) While the poor do have dignity and should not be humiliated, is it humiliation to expect wise stewardship of social welfare funds aimed at providing them with a baseline dignity?

I noticed the same question just this week, again in the Washington Post. Chase Manhattan Bank, which benefited from a taxpayer bailout, was criticized for “poor shaming” for suggesting ways to save money to customers with low bank balances, like making coffee at home rather than buying it, discovering leftovers, and walking sometimes rather than taking the cab. What in any earlier generation would have been called common-sense ways to economize was labeled “poor shaming” by suggesting somebody who can’t afford a $7 Benti-Venti-Menti-Latte might boil some hot water.

Cutting corners to make ends meet is not a shame. There may be other macro-factors that affect our economy and its workers, but they do not dispense from the non-discriminatory fact that, here and now, you might now want to pop that $5 on a cab ride.

Cass raises other questions about how our social policies undermine the “respect gap” we afford to work. When a single parent in a tenuous economic situation, on welfare, stands to lose that social safety net because the few extra dollars she now earns suddenly makes her ineligible for any support to make her economic lot more stable, it undermines the respect we want to assign to work. When different social programs apply different earnings standards, so that those few extra dollars might still leave her with some welfare support but puts her unsupported on the laissez-faire rental market (which, in many American cities, has long surpassed the traditional Catholic fairness criterion of about 20-25% of income going toward housing), we also undermine culture of work respect. Since 1967, the United States has tracked, and then discounted, “discouraged workers,” i.e., unemployed persons who are now longer actively seeking a job. When we simply zero out a whole category of people who have given up looking for work, we undermine our effort to reinforce a culture of work.

There are many ways our socio-economic policies might be recalibrated to reinforce the value we say we attach to work, but we will never get to that level until we first recover the cultural valuation of work.

As a kid, one thing I always liked was visiting my grandfather in the summer, who would send me home with some of his old 78 records. I still remember one of those songs: “I Gotta Get Up and Go to Work.” The lyrics sung of a worker who scrambles out of bed, gobbles down breakfast (including a domestically brewed coffee), and says goodbye to his wife because “one kiss and then//like all good men//I gotta get up and go to work.” 

Prescinding from the paternal patina, we might consider that more good men (and women) with that perspective could be socially beneficial.

All views expressed in this essay are exclusively the author’s.