Progressive Fundamentals: The Dignity of Work

Work is an essential component of human dignity, a fact that should not be ignored when considering how to move forward on economic recovery, writes Susan Thistlethwaite.

Americans are becoming more and more anxious about the declining economy, according to a new Associated Press Poll. Many reported that they had already lost their jobs, or were underemployed. Even among those surveyed who are currently employed, nearly half responded that they fear losing their jobs—almost double the percentage at this time last year. High- and low-wage workers both share this worry.

The cascading loss of jobs and the increasing anxiety among those who still have a job is a fundamental threat to basic human dignity. Work itself is fundamental to how human beings realize their destiny in this world. To be deprived of work, to be unable to provide for one’s family and oneself, is to become not only economically vulnerable, but also humanly stunted. Even the threat of job loss is enough to erode a sense of personal dignity and self-worth. Work, whether a paid job or unpaid work in the home, as a caregiver, or in a volunteer capacity is fundamental to human nature and its expression.

This connection between work and human dignity lies at the core of progressive values. Progressivism is deeply rooted in the struggles of ordinary people to realize a decent life for themselves and their children. While progressivism is informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality, it is most characterized by its focus on economic struggle.1 Progressive values dictate that people need both a means to practical economic advancement and respect for their human dignity and equal worth.

This central moral value of progressivism holds that people are of infinite worth, and economic well being is a way that their core value is recognized in society. Few have stated this deep conviction of the centrality of work to human dignity more profoundly than John Paul II. In his famous encyclical “On Human Work,” he writes that work is fundamental to the truth of the human condition. Through work, people become who they are intended to be. Through work, human beings share “in the activity of the Creator” (Laborem Exercens, V.25).

Human dignity, therefore, should not be regarded as passive, but as active. Human potential is more fulfilled when people have the means to express their creativity, and an important way they do that is through work. When people are denied the ability to work, they are denied the dignity that comes with that work. Society thus has both a practical and a moral obligation to promote economic systems that allow for the widest possible expression of human potential through work.2

Progressives recognize the fundamental link between sound economic practices and respect for human dignity. Progressives, therefore, have a deep-seated commitment to helping create and sustain economic systems that draw upon and stimulate human creativity.

In the last decade, however, our economic system has produced fewer and fewer jobs, and the jobs it has produced are more in the lower-paying, service sector. Tax cuts for the wealthy, wage suppression tactics, undercutting unions, and other deliberate practices created almost a decade of declining or stagnant wages and slow or no real job growth. These tactics increase profits at the expense of workers. Many Americans have had to work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, sacrificing family time and even adequate rest to make even a modest living. These kinds of jobs do not honor human dignity; they erode a sense of self-worth and contribute to a sense of helplessness and despair. They are a direct attack on the fundamental dignity and worth of human beings as expressed through their work.

These economic policies have been both a moral and a practical failure. As CAP’s Michael Ettlinger argues, “economic policies with tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy as their centerpiece have simply failed to produce strong economic growth by a variety of measures.”

Economic policies of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy are the result of political processes that favor those economic interests over the majority of Americans. In 1932, Reinhold Niebuhr, the mid-twentieth century ethicist and theologian, wrote from the depths of another economic downturn that “economic power has become irresponsible in society.” Niebuhr believed that economic interests had simply overwhelmed the political process through an excess of power.3

The first decade of the 21st century is beginning to bear a strong resemblance to the third decade of the 20th century. In the last years, those with economic power have dictated to the political realm, resulting in not only an economic meltdown, but a moral meltdown, too.

The irresponsibility of which Niebuhr speaks is especially visible in the failure to provide a 21st century regulatory structure to oversee the financial markets, and to exercise proper oversight within existing regulatory structures, as happened with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s failure to stop Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme swindle.

The policies of the Bush administration did not meet the moral standard of what it means to respect human dignity through job generation, and through appropriate oversight of financial markets.

In these next years, we need not only an economic stimulus, but a moral stimulus as well. The moral stimulus is rooted in a return to the core progressive value that human dignity is respected when the majority of citizens are able to participate in a meaningful way in both their economic and their political life as a society.

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress and Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary.


1. John Podesta, The Power of Progress (New York: Random House, Inc., 2008), pp.16-17.

2. The dignity of human beings transcends work, of course. Work is a means by which dignity is exercised. People who cannot work because of handicapping conditions or other problems do not cease having dignity, though a failure to provide adequate care for them also insults their dignity and worth. The key insight of progressivism on human nature, however, is that it is fundamentally dynamic rather than static. Economic systems are most robust when human beings are the active subjects, not the passive objects of these systems.

3. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, Intro. Langdon B. Gilkey (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932.

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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite