Romney's right, a paycheck can provide dignity

April 23, 2012 at 7:15 AM ET

The latest Mommy Wars hoopla on the presidential campaign trail centers on a Mitt Romney statement: “I want individuals to have the dignity of work.”

Romney recently defended his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom and never punch a clock, but in a past speech called for welfare moms to earn a paycheck because of the dignity earning money provides.

Politics aside, the candidate’s declaration about the benefits of paid work opens up an important question. Does earning a living provide individuals with dignity?

“In American culture, it is very difficult to substitute the kind of honored dignity that comes with paid work,” said Katherine Newman, a sociologist and the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

“There’s a premium we place on people in the work world; not that there isn’t tremendous effort put into raising a family,” said Newman, author of “Falling from Grace: Downward Mobility in the Age of Affluence.” “But our society has always defined being in the work world as essential to being a respected adult, and this is self reinforcing.”

Of course, any mother – including Ann Romney – will tell you that parenting is hard work. But in our society, we tend to value paid work differently than difficult tasks that do not come with a paycheck.

Jeremy Carter of Polara Studios /
Janie Marsh, an excon who found dignity in work

Janie Marsh, 43, from McMinnville, Ore., is a prime example. She battled drug addiction and alcoholism for 20 plus years, living in the woods and behind dumpsters until ultimately ending up in jail at 36 for a host of charges including stealing cars.

She eventually went through drug treatment, took employment classes at Goodwill Industries, and landed a job in landscaping. “I had never mowed a lawn in my life,” she said.

But, she added, “the first time I saw those lines on the lawn, and a paycheck, it was the greatest feeling. It reconnected me with my community I’d been estranged from. It gave me back my dignity.”

Dignity is hard to define. Merriam-Webster defines it as: “The quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” And The American Heritage Dictionary’s meaning says it’s “the presence of poise and self-respect in one’s deportment to a degree that inspires respect.”

The idea of dignity -- according to one extensive study on the topic, “A Taxonomy of Dignity,” by a University of Toronto researcher published in the online journal BioMed Central in 2009 -- “has been criticized for being vague and contradictory.” But the study defined “dignity of self” as “a quality of self-respect and self-worth that is identified with characteristics like confidence and integrity and a demeanor described as dignified.” 

So does employment really help bring about self-respect and self-worth?

Of the list of dignity promoters in the University of Toronto study, being self-sufficient, doing the job right, and working with others were among a list of many contributors to dignity.

“This is why I’m an enduring fan of Roosevelt,” said Newman, about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who championed the New Deal giving the unemployed jobs during the Great Depression. “He put the nation to work and understood that it's more important that people have jobs, no matter who’s providing them jobs, because if you’re not working you don’t feel you’re whole.”

But Stephen Balzac, a professor of organizational psychology at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” said not all work promotes dignity.

“In general, jobs have the potential to provide people with dignity, defined as greater confidence, feelings of success, and a sense of control over one's life,” he said. “However, for the job to do that, it must be appropriately constructed to increase motivation and self-worth. Jobs that are seen as pure drudgery provide little dignity.”

Not everyone agrees.

Jim Gibbons, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International, said dignity could be found in the most menial jobs.

“You can probably say there are a lot of high-paid consultants out there who aren’t feeling dignity in their work,” he pointed out. “It depends on the person, and it depends on the culture of an organization.”

Karen Dillon, co-author of the forthcoming book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?,” and contributing editor of the Harvard Business review, said it’s all about what makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself.

She’s reluctant to use the word “dignity” in this context because she believes “it’s a simplistic way of looking at it.”

A baseline need has to be met by work, she continued, such as being able to support yourself and putting food on the table.

But no matter what an individual’s economic status, she added, the key is how you feel at the end of the day. “Did they feel like something mattered and did they feel they were valued?” she said.

When Diane Johnson was newly married, in her twenties, and working as a broker, she pondered leaving the work world and focusing on starting a family but a friend at the time told her you need to "understand what work means" and told her to read the passage about work in Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet.’”

The section changed her mind and now, as she nears her 50th birthday, she said she’s happy she stayed in the work force, ultimately starting her own communications company. 

The passage from the piece by Gibran, a poet and artist, that touched Johnson most:

“Always you have been told that work is a curse and labor a misfortune. But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth's furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born.”