What provides dignity in the life of a low wage earner is not that different than what allows workers at the high, or even rarefied ends, of the work for pay scale to get up in the morning and brave another day. A sense of accomplishment, the perception that what one does is necessary and appreciated, and the knowledge that at the end of the day you can take care of not only yourself but those who are dependent upon you is inherent in all people. The idea that low-end wage earners are somehow less aware of these things is patronizing. When you make minimum wage, live paycheck to paycheck and never seem to get ahead, your survival is much more in the forefront than the idea that work should “feed your soul”, nurture you in some way, but it is not entirely absent. If not for this, who would work at all?
When my husband was still alive and living in the nursing home, I would go and feed him whenever I could. There were never enough aides or nurses, and they would scurry from table to table and feed 3 or more residents at a time. Because I was there so often, I became as invisible as the residents, most of whom were only dimly aware of the conversations of their caregivers and too far gone in various stages of dementia to repeat what they heard anyway. These women (and they were without exception female) ranged in age from high school to their mid to late 30’s. Many had second jobs. Some were attempting, not too successfully, to further their educations. They all had children, and many had childcare problems – mainly that it was expensive and unreliable. They spoke of credit issues, not being able to obtain or the fear of debt collection should they fall behind or if they were already. They had problems maintaining permanent relationships mostly because of the strain that lack of quality time between job and childcare caused. No one slacked, but no one was challenged either. They had standards. They had goals. They didn’t seem, to me, to have a lower level of expectation of fulfillment from their work or their lives in general than I did.
As a teacher, I tried to convey to my students a sense of cause and effect. How well you do in school will affect your education and career opportunities in adulthood. I told them that if they wanted to wait tables because they enjoyed the work then great, but if they were doing any kind of work because it was the only kind of work available to them because they lacked education, this shouldn ’t be acceptable to them. I have long suspected that the purpose of our uneven education system is to ensure that the country has a steady supply of workers who have no choice but to keep our 24/7 shopping habits alive and do the cleaning up that most people are blissfully unaware of. I always tried to give every student a level field, made no assumptions about their capabilities, and gave them every chance and then some to advance. In my opinion, success is a virus that if allowed to flourish in one class will spread to others.
As a citizen it disturbs me that people can work hard and play by the arbitrarily set rules and still discover that the playing field was never level in the first place. When my husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I found myself a reluctant and unwilling participant in the Social Security system and discovered that it’s not very social and not meant to provide much in the way of security. What struck me the most was the dehumanizing aspects that seemed almost purposely designed to ensure a sense of unworthiness, as if my husband’s becoming seriously ill was somehow his fault or mine. There is no safety net in the United States and no will to demand one.