The dignity of work

Unidentified man, Cali, Colombia
Unidentified man, Cali, Colombia

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

16 thoughts on “The dignity of work”

  1. Oh will y'all please stop!!! Last week Keith Humphreys chanted his hymn to the glory of shoe-shining!

    My father would have scolded you all for "slumming". Rich college kids thinking it was oh-so-hip to hang out with a few poor negroes once a year, straight out of Animal House. It's akin to Favela Tourism in Rio. Just stop.

    There's no fucking dignity in poverty. If you want to talk about the need for unions, bring it on. If you want to talk about paying this man enough for his labor that he can afford a frickin' Vespa to tow his stuff behind, you go, bro'.

    But don't go laying this Ivy League jive on us, that this is dignity. It's not. The guy's life looks like it sucks, and it's caused by oppression, the suckitude of his life. If he can still manage a smile at the end of the day, and kiss his wife tenderly, and read bed-time stories to his kids, then the man has dignity. But no way his work does.

    He's grinding it out as a peon in an unjust society, controlled by Foggy Bottom and Langley, as a base for which we can invade Venezuela and steal their oil. Otherwise, FARC would be running the show, and he'd be in a union. Eduardo Galleano could tell you a thing or two about dignity.

    1. Ah yes. The CIA did such a good job of preventing the former Tupamaro José Mujica being elected President of Uruguay and serving his full term of office peacefully.

  2. Fair enough. You've laid out the case against "The Upper class gaze" quite well.

    But Harold is a wise man, and I give him the benefit of the doubt in what he is up to. I know his work directly involves solidarity with the least among us. (For what it's worth, so too does mine – as such I feel solidarity with him). With Mother Theresa's sainthood yesterday, I'm reminded of the argument against her: that she wasn't doing enough, that she was glorifying suffering. Without getting into the particulars of her canonization, the claim that she was wrong to find God in suffering I believe is a misinterpretation. I'm atheist, but I can see the grace of transcendence. It is a sentiment difficult to put into words. Buddhists talk about freedom from want. Scientifically, the process might be described with the language discriminative stimuli and conditioning, both respondent and operant. I don't feel equipped to go into the details of how such a process would be described, but I'm confident a reasonable hypothesis could be put forth.

    The fact of the matter is that this post is a picture of a man doing difficult work, likely for low pay, likely as a result of his ethnic and cultural history. Society does not dignify him, by regarding him properly for his efforts. Yet he is doing what he must. A more striking example of this might be a picture of a prostitute. The vantage point from which we all sit ought correctly be noted. But so too ought the elements of the image that merely represent common humanity, that seek to take note of something so ancient and ever-present throughout the world, and give it voice. Indeed, the voice is visual, and as such can become pornographic. Objectified. Commodified. But that is contextual. And the context I attempt to promote here gives more credit to Harold, that he was seeing something more – solidarity, compassion, beauty in struggle. True dignity. I like to think this blog is a place that aspires to as much.

    1. A very humane and thoughtful comment Eli. It's amazing the good things we can see in other people when we fill our hearts with compassion rather than contempt.

    1. I normally find it vexing when a blogger declines to amplify on an ambiguous post, but I think that's exactly right in this case. The picture itself invites us to reflect on what we mean by the "dignity of work," and is worth the proverbial thousand words. Elaboration is not required, and might be unhelpful.

      My two cents: I read the title as being at least somewhat ironic. (But I don't need to know!) The subject of the photo exudes dignity that doesn't come from his labor, but rather his humanity.

  3. It's possible that I agree a little bit with all of you, and/or I go back and forth.

    A couple things: judging on how this man is dressed, he is a dignified person, whatever his circumstances. He dresses better than probably 95% of the people I see daily. I am not of the school that says you can really know much about someone just by looking … but, this is something that seemed to jump out at me. (In fact, I am often impressed by how much better dressed people are in other countries, including "Third World", or "emerging" ones. It's superficial I guess but also inspiring.)

    This is not a criticism exactly, since I tend to keep to myself too… but what the heck, maybe next time go talk to him? I hate having my picture taken, for one thing. Even just being a blip in someone's vacation photo. I do not like it. It annoys the hooey out of me. And that doesn't feel dignified.

    And having said those things, I also think that poor and oppressed people can often retain their dignity and the rest of us can respect and admire it… without being thought to say that poverty is just. I don't think anyone here thinks it is. (Maybe Brett.)(Jk, Brett…)(Insert free market blabbity blah… ; ) … but really, we don't know what this man is doing. Maybe he's helping a friend move.)

    1. And actually, even though I myself don't like having my photo taken, or being accosted… I do think it is better to look than to not look, and to notice than to not notice… and that this may in fact be a duty. I think we are supposed to do more, in fact (although I generally fall down on this).

      I wonder if I am in someone's post somewhere… maybe under a headline like, "The American Underclass." (I dress badly. Got to work on that.)

      1. Who is the worst dressed Silicon Valley billionaire? (If you put in a URL, I will try to add the photo to your comment.)

        1. I have no idea — do tell!!! I don't know that I'd count a mere grey tee shirt habit as being badly dressed in a noticeable way — as you probably know, Americans have a really low standard for fashion, in general — so do you mean someone not Zuckerberg? He just looks average, imho.

    2. I don't think poverty, as an abstract, is just, or unjust. How could you say such a thing of any given person, without knowing anything of his or her life story? And justice is unavoidably individual, in the details.

      Surely there are people who are justly poor, (They had wealth and/or opportunity, and threw them away, or properly forfeited them.) there are people who are unjustly poor, (They had wealth and/or opportunity, and it was wrongly taken from them.) and there are people who are just poor, with neither justice nor injustice involved. Nobody took a thing from them.

      Poverty, after all, is the default condition of mankind. It isn't poverty that requires explanation, but wealth.

      Anyway, I think dignity is orthogonal to poverty/wealth. I've met dignified people who were dirt poor, the sort of poverty you never see in the US. I've met wealthy people who were clowns. Poverty and wealth have nothing to do with dignity, either way.

      1. How many of your "justly poor" can there be? Accepting this Elizabethan Poor Law framing for the sake of argument, it's obvious that they cannot include children. That's 16.5 million in the USA (definition: living in food insecure households, 2011), while in 2009 39.8 million in total were below the poverty line (Wikipedia). The numbers are not strictly comparable, but 40% children must be in the right area. Then we have spouses and other partners. A few of these must be co-responsible, but the typical case is only one of the two being "blameworthy": an alcoholic, drug addict, criminal, etc. Then we have those disabled by accident at work or on the road, or by illness, or congenitally. Widows may be thrown into poverty when the breadwinner dies, as many pension schemes are inadequate or looted. Even on the most punitive and moralising ethic – say blaming smokers completely for their lung disease – you end up with a substantial majority of blameless poor. That is before you look in detail at the bad choices people make, about partners, jobs, investments, lifestyle and so on. There are always others involved as well: pushers like SJ Reynolds, crooks like Trump, sharks like Romney, conmen like Carson, apologists like Brett.

        1. What I'm saying, James, (And to NCGatSmFcts, actually.) is that talking about whether "poverty", as such, is just, is a category error. Poverty can be just or unjust, or merely a brute fact, in relation to particular people, but the phenomenon of poverty itself is neither just nor unjust, it merely is.

          It's like men are mortal, "death" as such is not just or unjust, but somebody can be justly or unjustly killed. You don't know if any given instance is one, the other, or neither, until you inquire into the details.

          Justice is not a mass noun. It is individual. That's all I was saying.

          You know, Mark will probably delete this, as he doesn't want me commenting more than once on any given post. I only ventured to make this comment because you directly addressed me. I've included my email address in my profile if you really want to have a conversation.

          1. As usual there is a lot of grey so I'm not saying you're "wrong." But I don't think that poverty just happens, most of the time. That is, it's true that we were thrown out of the Garden, and life will always have hard moments, no matter how rich you are anyway. There is a certain amount of struggle that is inherent in life. And you may also be correct that we don't get ourselves very far by generalizing about poor individuals, especially when we don't actually know them.

            Having said that… I think that most of the time, poverty is in fact at least partly a result of someone's bad decisionmaking. And I mean that in the sense of someone deciding to exclude someone else. The US is the place I know the best and is the window through which I see the world I guess. However… there's a snowball chance in H*ll that you and I will agree on this! So I'm going to close just by saying, Hi! Glad you're not banned. (I had something get eaten too, by the system. You're not alone!)

          2. Perhaps that was why Mark allowed your comment under the right to respond. Justice in action.

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