Opinion: Actually, Senator Collins, everyone is entitled to dignity / by Sam Pfeifle

Photo by Kevin Dietsch, Getty

Recently, Susan Collins, our senior senator here in Maine, made a speech to the Senate regarding the Build Back Better package of legislation and the trend, in general, toward more government support for U.S. citizens. 

“The debate,” she argued, “on President Biden’s massive plan to expand social programs has focused primarily on its enormous cost. Remarkably little attention has been paid to the content of those policy changes. Yet, the expensive entitlement programs the administration is proposing would have profound implications for people’s lives and for the values that are among the pillars of our society, for they would break the connection between work and a brighter future.”

It was, as are many of her speeches, an appeal to lofty ideas that may sound appealing but do not hold up to any kind of intellectual scrutiny. 

Core to Collins’ argument is the idea of the “dignity of work.” It is the title of her speech and the concept she appeals to as she objects to “entitlement programs untethered to work,” such as a child tax credit automatically paid out each month, or, as she slippery slopes the Democrats into supporting, a “guaranteed minimum income.” 

Of course, she even quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Who could argue with his idea that, “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity”?

First, regarding a guaranteed minimum income: I wish. I don’t see any real effort toward a guaranteed minimum income. Even most Democrats are looking for means testing and the like that would bar many people from any government payments and make everything transactional. Many progressives support some kind of “negative income tax” concept where everyone would file taxes and those who make below a certain amount in a year would be topped up to get them out of poverty, but I haven’t seen any significant attempts at such a broad-reaching solution. 

Second, though, is this concept of dignity achieved via work and what Dr. King even meant by his quote. In the abstract, most of us would agree with the idea that we acquire a positive self-worth through accomplishment. Most people aren’t satisfied with sloth; they want to be useful and productive and contribute to the quality of their own lives. 

Nor do I think they want to work only for financial return. Many, many people volunteer or make art or raise families or do all manner of work for no return other than their own personal satisfaction, which may very well contribute to their self-worth and dignity. 

However, I don’t think anyone can argue that there is dignity in labor that proves essentially fruitless. That’s what the King quote that Collins loves is arguing. He’s saying all work is valuable if it uplifts humanity, not just work that our capitalist marketplace values and therefore rewards with money. The problem with Collins’ argument is that too many people are working and not getting any dignity in return. 

Where is the dignity in working for $7.75 an hour, the federal minimum wage, when a 40-hour work week only gets you $1,250 a month, a paltry amount by any standard of living? Where is the dignity in forcing every family to have both parents working, then spending as much as a third of their income (on average!) on child care? Or a single parent, who spends — on average — more than half their income on infant care? 

Calls for a minimum income stem from our broken system, where the work doesn’t return the dignity. 

For 40 years, we have seen stagnant wage growth for all but the highest earners. Our hard-working citizens are doing the same amount of work, and earning the same amount of money, but inflation means they are getting less and less value from that money. The amount of work does not translate into anything close to the same purchasing power. 

All the while, the cost of being able to work continues to rise. Workers must often have a smartphone, which costs $100 a month at minimum; they must have an internet connection, most likely, which costs another $50; they must have transportation, a difficulty in some areas as public transportation has all but disappeared from rural life. Accessible trains once criss-crossed Maine. Now, good luck finding a bus from anywhere in rural Maine to one of our business centers. 

The public, the government, has abandoned the U.S. worker almost completely. Where is the dignity in that?

Finally, Collins’ view of humanity is deeply cynical and pessimistic if she truly believes “creating entitlement programs untethered to work … would fundamentally change incentives for our families, our communities, our society, and our economy, depriving people of their dignity and eroding their ability to provide for themselves and their families.”

Are human beings like mice — only able to motivate themselves to work if facing the possibility of starvation? Does she really believe that the “dignity of work” is so fragile that giving people enough money to make sure they are fed and housed would remove any incentive for them to work? 

I take a rather more optimistic view of humanity. I think, with the abject terror of hunger and homelessness removed, we will see the best of humanity’s creativity and production. I think giving people the peace of mind that their government will ensure no one’s lack of ability to exchange their labor for cash will result in penury will allow them to participate fully in our democracy and help us forge a more perfect union. I think our senator’s view that people need “incentives” to work undermines her very argument for dignity. 

Caring for one’s child or elderly parents is work that uplifts humanity and deserves dignity. Making beautiful art is work that uplifts humanity and deserves dignity. Advocating for the oppressed and abused is work that uplifts humanity and deserves dignity. 

Beyond that, however, there ought to be dignity contained in every human life. For some, due to any number of circumstances, simply getting through the day is work. If that’s the best they can muster, we must come together as a community and society and care for them. 

We are more than simply the “work” we do and to argue otherwise is beneath someone whose job it is to represent all of us who live here in Maine. 

Author: Sam Pfeifle is a writer, editor, and publisher living in Gray. He currently serves as the Chair of the MSAD 15 School Board, was recently the press coordinator for the Lisa for Maine campaign to elect Lisa Savage to the U.S. Senate in 2020, and fronts the World Famous Grassholes. He can be reached at sam@westgraycreative.com.

Source: Maine Beacon, October 12, 2021, https://mainebeacon.com/opinion-actually-senator-collins-everyone-is-entitled-to-dignity/