Committing to Economic Dignity

Editors’ Note: Excerpted from The New York Times, April 26, 2020.

By Gene B. Sperling

Mr. Sperling was the national economic adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He is also the author of the forthcoming book “Economic Dignity.”

Fifty-two years ago, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously asserted the dignity of all work, he seemed to foresee this moment when it would become so clear that the labor of everyone — farmworkers, grocers, delivery drivers, caregivers, nursing assistants — was essential to all of our health and well-being.

“One day,” Dr. King told sanitation workers on strike in Memphis in 1968, “our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”

 

Dr. King wasn’t just making a moral observation. He was calling for “genuine equality” through an increase in wages, health care, job safety and economic power. “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter,” Dr. King asked, “if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger?”

Today, we are forced to confront the dissonance between our nation’s labeling of workers as “essential” and “heroes” and their limited wages, benefits and ability to organize.

Today, we are forced to confront the dissonance between our nation’s labeling of workers as “essential” and “heroes” and their limited wages, benefits and ability to organize.

The economic headlines in this crisis will be dominated by eye-popping falls in traditional metrics like G.D.P. and employment rates, but there is a more profound narrative to be written: Will our overdue recognition of the contributions of so many workers lead to only temporary applause and pats on the back, or will it move us toward a true social compact ensuring economic dignity for all?

Economic dignity means providing people with the capacity to care for family, pursue their potential and a sense of purpose, and contribute economically free from domination and humiliation.

Economic dignity means providing people with the capacity to care for family, pursue their potential and a sense of purpose, and contribute economically free from domination and humiliation. It is about more than putting food on the table: It’s about making sure Americans have the chance to be at that table with their loved ones. It’s about ensuring that economic deprivation and structural disadvantage don’t deny people life’s most precious, God-given moments, from bonding with newborns to caring for aging parents.

There has also never been a more fitting time to legislate the principle that if there is dignity in all work, there must be a dignified wage for all workers.

 

Conservatives like Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, echo progressive calls for the dignity of work and espouse the “need to be needed.” Yet he and others routinely oppose virtually every policy, like a strong minimum wage and universal health security, that would enable tens of millions of working parents who are quite needed by their children to actually meet those needs. They treat the notion of a living wage as radical even though it was a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, who called for a “living wage” that was high enough “to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit of reasonable saving for old age.”

Conservatives, and some traditional economic analyses, claim that a living wage would lead to job loss, but that has been repeatedly contradicted by empirical evidence — including a recent analysis of 138 state minimum-wage increases. But even this debate misses a larger reality. We have many policies that can be used in tandem to ensure an effective living wage while alleviating any fears of job loss.

The $20-an-hour or more that is most likely needed for working parents to raise their children with true economic dignity can be reached by combining a $15 minimum wage with policies that do not raise employer costs at all — like major expansions of the earned-income tax credit and child-care subsidies. We could further protect employment levels by pairing a major minimum-wage increase with expansions of green jobs, health service jobs and caregiving.

While some technology leaders and economists fret about robots replacing workers, they miss the reality that we actually face a huge dearth of jobs that will always require people to do them. We have a great opportunity to provide dignified work — with higher pay, status and opportunities for career advancement — through millions of jobs that directly help other people thrive. Call them “double-dignity jobs.”

A commitment to economic dignity must also go hand-in-hand with protecting workers’ right to organize and bond together to prevent domination and humiliation on the job. It is an outrage that grocery, delivery and warehouse workers who lack unions fear retaliation for demanding hazard pay, personal protective equipment, stronger safety measures and paid sick leave during this crisis.

The trend in recent decades toward subcontracting has been a substantial cause of economic inequality and second-class citizenship in the work force at odds with notions of equal dignity.

 

Many corporations now contract out jobs like cleaning, food service and data entry. This lets companies save on benefits for workers whom they artificially define as not essential to the “core competency” of the organization. Labor economists estimate that this type of sorting accounts for a quarter to a third of the increase of wage inequality since 1980.

Even in this pandemic, two of the most well-funded and prestigious universities in the nation, Harvard and Stanford, refused to guarantee their subcontracted workers’ pay for the remainder of the semester. They changed course only when student protesters intervened.

Even in this pandemic, two of the most well-funded and prestigious universities in the nation, Harvard and Stanford, refused to guarantee their subcontracted workers’ pay for the remainder of the semester. They changed course only when student protesters intervened.

This trend toward second-class citizenship at work was not preordained. It’s a policy choice, permitted by our laws and motivated by how we structure health and economic benefits.

 

While we are now rightly focused on what will end this crisis as quickly as possible, we face a longer-term question. Will we wash our hands of any obligation to those who serve our nation, as we shamefully did when black soldiers helping to save our democracy returned from the world wars? Or will we seize the moment to compel a true commitment to economic dignity for all?

 



Categories: coronavirus, Health Care, Issues, labor and unions, Local, National, wealth inequality

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