Over the next three chapters we’ll be exploring the cultural value of “hard work” – how it’s still stubbornly embedded in ways of thinking about worker power and economic justice policies AND ways we can expand the definition of “work” and wield this value for our progressive goals.

    • This chapter (Chapter 3) starts by mapping the cultural value;
    • Chapter 4 will discuss the dangers of the deservingness trap; and
    • Chapter 5 will lay out ways we can shift the conversation.

“Well, if you’re in high poverty areas, people who don’t really have jobs, don’t just hand out money. They have to work for it. I know that it sounds really mean to say, but everyone has to work for something in their life.” – 20-year-old white female, student, Olathe, KS

Work is much more than an economic act. It is a central component of the story people tell about themselves and about others.  Instead of a simple means to an end, it’s a deeply rooted value entangled in morality and worth.

Across our research, we find that the importance of earning what you get through hard work is a key value shared across our culture, across demographic groups. And many, particularly the older generation, put a high value not just on hard work, but on struggle, sacrifice, and paying your dues.

A willingness to work, and work hard, grants a sense of pride, self-worth and a claim to respect from others. And disparaging others as unwilling to work hard is a claim that someone is unworthy of that respect, which makes it a key ingredient in narratives of racism and classism, as well as generational, geographic and political tensions.

People see work and work ethic as a foundation to creating a moral community. Particularly in the South, a good work ethic is a character trait that is instilled through the church, family, and community. On the flipside, especially (but not only) for middle class, conservative, white Southerners, the government is perceived as harming work ethic by rewarding those who don’t strive at the expense of those who do.

The manifestation of hard work as a cultural value is certainly not unique to the South and Southern Midwest.  But this is a region where expectations about employer responsibilities and workplace standards run low, and where cultural anxieties about work ethic and deservingness run high, all tied up with intense race and class tensions. Even amongst those who are excluded from economic opportunities and networks (and know from experience that hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success), most people still believe that hard work is what makes one eligible for success. 

Any effort to shift the nature and power dynamics of work in the South and Southern Midwest will have to cope with the fact that “hard work” is never really just about work.

Hear from Southerners and Southern Midwesterners: