From The Left: Is work a dying ethic?

Lance Simmens

No. Americans have not changed, America has—and it’s time workers are properly compensated.

The pandemic has reordered many if not most of our lives over the past 18 months or so and the remedies that have been put forth by the federal, state and local governments to help keep the economy from tanking, primarily in the form of enhanced unemployment and minimum weekly and monthly payments, may have long-lasting, permanent impact upon the value many Americans place upon work. Is work overvalued?

Could it be that a tectonic shift in the way we evaluate and value work and the habits that being a part of the national workforce entail is already taking place? Could American legislative lack of interest in the rights of workers and compensation in the form of a stagnant minimum wage over the past half-century, coupled with a discernible drop in unionization, finally awaken large segments of the workforce? When essential workers are working longer hours for less pay and, in many instances, working several jobs just to barely make ends meet or even may be falling behind in payments, is work simply not worth it?

A study of the workforce released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) delineates 1979 as the point where significant changes started to accelerate a large chasm between workers and wages. Whereas the mid-20th century reflected a time of advances for working class Americans, “The decades since 1979 have been characterized by erosion of the minimum wage and overtime-pay standards, a decline in unionization and cultural and political acceptance of excessive executive pay.”

A rising tide of economic inequality has captured our culture and economy in a way that defies rational thought or acceptability. The EPI study cites “the top one percent in the United States captured 85.1 percent of total income growth from 2009 to 2013. In 2013, the 1.6 million families in the top one percent made 25.3 times as much on average as the 161 million families in the bottom 99 percent.”

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office concluded that 30 percent of Americans could not come up with $400 in an emergency. Currently, Congress is struggling with how to fund a transformative social and physical infrastructure agenda through a tax on 700 billionaires, and as of this writing it is unclear whether enough political courage exists to pass such a radical idea [dripping with sarcasm].

Historical crises have afforded great opportunities to make major structural changes in society. The Great Depression led to the New Deal; World War II led to the Marshall Plan and the Interstate Highway System and the economic boom of the 1950s. Race riots in American cities led to the adoption of civil rights legislation. It is not unthinkable to imagine that the pandemic might lead to a major structural revamping of the current level of economic injustice that afflicts our nation.

There can be little doubt that the current state of economic inequality is unsustainable and could lead to further fracturing and divisiveness in a society that already is buckling under the weight of political partisanship that has not existed since the days preceding the Civil War. As we continue to reflect upon the dismal economic conditions in America among a substantial and growing population, where is the incentive to work under modern-day slave conditions?

As two-income families are literally rediscovering the benefits of not working, i.e., by having more time to devote to their families and their long-lost social connections, scaling back to a more meaningful and less consumer-oriented existence, maybe the benefit of a public health disaster is that it’s likely to make life more enjoyable?

Maybe, just maybe, a simpler life may reduce stress and force us to identify those things that are most important in life. And maybe, just maybe, our national priorities can now be focused upon things that truly have been neglected over the past generation: namely, a runaway climate crisis that threatens to make absolutely meaningless our obsession with material things; universal health care, child care, elderly care and education; a physical and social infrastructure program that will bring us into the 21st century and will put us on a par with dozens of nations around the world; a bona fide effort to reduce racism, promote democracy and expand voting rights; and a resuscitation of our national and international leadership as the beacon of liberty and freedom throughout the world.

The working opportunities that will be available from such an expanded view and the dedication of sufficient resources that will allow the economy to grow could create a level of satisfaction for work. People are not dissatisfied with the concept of work, only with the products produced. Our goal should be to identify those products that make us proud to expend the energy to produce them. We ignore this opportunity at our own peril.