This chapter continues our deep dive into the cultural value of “hard work:”

    • Chapter 3 started by mapping the value;
    • This chapter (Chapter 4) discusses the dangers of the deservingness trap; and
    • Chapter 5 will lay out ways we can shift the conversation to wield this value for our progressive goals.

The manifestation of hard work as a value can trigger harmful mindsets and value systems that sort people into worthy and unworthy, successful and unsuccessful.  And in the South and Southern Midwest,  it can be a primary language through which racism, classism and generational conflict get expressed.

In our work to push forward equitable worker power policies, the problematic deservingness trap is an easy one to trigger.

Hard work as a value encourages a focus on individual working people and supports the belief that people deserve to be where they are because of individual effort. This little-picture view obscures conditions, systems, and the way our collective decisions affect the world around us. Meritocracy, the cousin of deservingness, confirms that the system as a whole, is set up fairly and that people get sorted appropriately via individual hard work.

“I work hard, pay taxes and get nothing, while others get a free ride” is a deeply held worldview, not just among conservatives. The moral value of hard work is a centerpiece of peoples’ stories about themselves and their claims to be good human beings.

We hear this again and again in the way older people talk disapprovingly about the work ethic of young people, but also in how people explain why some get ahead and others don’t.  “Lack of work ethic” becomes the default explanation for poverty, economic and racial disparities bolstering racism, classism, anti-poor and anti-immigrant sentiments that undermine equitable policies and action.

Most importantly, because the typical hard work narrative focuses on individual effort alone, it pushes policies and collective solutions out of the picture.  In fact, these harmful mindsets make it much more difficult to introduce a positive role for government policies.

When we talk about a strong safety net and pro-worker workplace protections, people tend to think about the pitfalls of “over-generous” help that gives people permission to stop working. And with its seeming tendency to give things away for free and treat everyone equally regardless of their “deservingness,” government is viewed as violating the value of hard work.

Hear from Southerners and Southern Midwesterners:

Conservative voices advancing an anti-worker, anti-government agenda rely heavily on the value of hard work in their narrative, because they understand how effective it is at undermining pro-worker solutions, even among people most likely to be advantaged by those solutions.

The answer isn’t to ignore the hard work value, but to wield it for progressive goals–the topic of our next chapter.