Dignity is easy for politicians to sell. From where they stand it doesn’t cost much. Dignity at the level they think we deserve is cheap. It’s not even their money they spend to buy it. It fits in well with the patronizing package of sanctimony that has been assaulting us from our radios, televisions, and mailboxes this campaign season.
We are told that dignity comes from entitlements, is available to seniors from Social Security, and is a must for hard working families not making enough to get by. Why would anyone believe that dignity is guaranteed by paying into cash-strapped government programs like Social Security or safety nets like food stamps and unemployment insurance?
Dignity comes cheap for the old and broke
Having to settle is rarely a good thing. When you’re settling on a choice between eating and buying prescriptions, it’s a problem. Will the newly announced 1.7% bump in Social Security benefits buy you the dignity you seek if you are too old to work and can’t make ends meet? The mouthpiece for the House Democratic Caucus, Xavier Becerra, thinks our government retirement program already does that:
For over 58 million Americans, Social Security provides indispensable economic security, allowing them to live a life of dignity.1
Real dignity is important, but we also have the government’s version of dignity. If Social Security prevents homelessness by putting some sort of a roof over your head there is a measure of dignity in that. Still, a roof doesn’t come close to the financial security politicians are selling.
We aren’t telling Americans loudly enough to rely on themselves instead of the government and its haphazard handling of entitlements and welfare benefits. Instead, during congressional budget battles we tossed food stamps into a sort of government assistance dignity package. Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen argued:
We should pass a budget that averts yet another shutdown early next year, roll back the cuts that are hurting the middle class, and extend unemployment benefits and the food stamp program so that the least among us can live with dignity.2
There is nothing dignified and something downright indecent in listening to a politician push dignity through the social safety net. Lifelines are not dignified. Not needing to rely on them is.
There is no decency in selling dignity
Congressional proponents of dignity from Social Security should sample that lifestyle for a few months even with the 1.7% higher payment. The average Social Security benefit is $1,294 per month,3 about $7.46 per hour. If that doesn’t pay enough to make them feel dignified, they can also try the middle class security Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey suggests can be attained for $10.10 per hour:
Raising the minimum wage is about giving families security, opportunity and dignity. The security to know they can make ends meet. The opportunity to climb out of poverty into the middle class. The dignity to know they are getting paid a fair wage for a hard day’s work.4
The Labor Department could be more helpful. It could have aspired a little higher, focusing its efforts on encouraging workers to not think of the lowest paying jobs as viable occupations that only need a raise from Congress. Instead, Secretary Thomas Perez recently took a ride on the midterm dignity train alongside Nancy Pelosi:
There’s no dignity in a 40 or 50 hour work week [for workers] who, at the end of the week, go to the food pantry to get your food. And that’s why we’ve been fighting so hard for this ten-ten bill, and that’s why I so applaud the daringness of Leader Pelosi and Congressman Miller who have been such remarkable partners in this effort.5
The only thing more shameful than a politician throwing minimum wage alms to the working poor is telling them that what has been judged an acceptable minimum standard of living will grant them dignity. Raising the bottom for everyone does not erase the bottom. There is no dignity in being at the bottom or waiting for someone else to decide your future.
Why real dignity is important
There is dignity in self-reliance, but self-reliance isn’t very popular this midterm campaign season. Self-reliance forces people to save for retirement and to refuse to settle for jobs the economy doesn’t value. Why did self-reliance go out of style? It doesn’t bring in votes and big government Democrats will go to extremes to stamp out the last shred of individual initiative in vulnerable voters. People don’t vote for what they don’t want or need. They vote because they expect something in return. If that something is government setting their standard of living, they will settle for living the lives they have earned.