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‘There’s No Natural Dignity in Work’

Wanda Lavender lives in Milwaukee. She’s 39, with six children and one grandchild. She used to be a day care teacher and proud of the work. But after a decade, she was still making $9 an hour. She was a single mother by then, and the money wasn’t enough. So she began working at Popeyes, too. She did both jobs for a time, putting in more than 60 hours a week.

“It took a toll on my health,” she told me. “I have rheumatoid arthritis and sciatica. It degrades your body. It messes with your mental status. You never get to see your kids. You’re always working.”

Here’s the question: Were those years in which Lavender worked night and day barely seeing her children, feeling her body break under the labor, a success of American public policy or a failure?

There’s long been a strain of conservative thinking that sees Lavender’s long hours as a success. In 2005, President George W. Bush listened to a woman tell him that she worked three jobs. “Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he replied with a smile. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”

Bush’s comment was an extreme expression of a common — and bipartisan — sentiment: Work is good, more of it is better and policy should be a conveyor belt from the moral torpor of idleness to the dignity of wage labor. You could do that by making work pay more, as with the earned-income tax credit, which subsidizes earnings from low-wage jobs. But you could also do that by making the choice not to work, or to work less, more punishing — as with the 1996 welfare reforms, or the various proposals for Medicaid and SNAP work requirements, which would tie income, health insurance and even food to work status.

Now, with both President Biden and Senator Mitt Romney proposing ambitious plans for cash grants to parents, irrespective of the parent’s work status, some conservatives are warning that these plans would lead to sloth and single parenthood. It is here that you see how the veneration of work, at any and all costs, has come to dominate conservative policy thinking: Even higher rates of child poverty are a price worth paying for more working mothers. Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio quickly dismissed Romney’s plan as “welfare assistance,” warning that “an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work.”

Read entire article at New York Times