For individuals living in poverty, the government guarantees a minimum standard of living through the provision of social assistance. Poverty reduction may be a strong argument in favour of such programs. Nevertheless, social assistance programs, depending on their design, risk creating a system of dependency. It often becomes more advantageous for recipients to rely on welfare instead of taking low-paying jobs. Yes, we all know this. But today I don’t want to bore you with econ talk. I want to tell you a personal story.
In discussing the issue of social assistance, a colleague today defended the idea that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with supporting people who don’t want to work. “How dare you judge them, Larissa? You don’t know their reasons for not wanting to work!” I asked if we were speaking of able-bodied adults. He confirmed. When I looked puzzled, he proceeded to explain that some jobs are, well, just shameful. Shameful? There is such a thing as a shameful job? This was as big a shock to me as an alien walking in through my door in the midst of the night would be. He then further elucidated: “Imagine, Larissa, if after years of working a good paying job, you find yourself unemployed. And not only that, but you know that you are only two months away from getting an amazing position. Are you, having a master’s degree, going to work at Tim Hortons for those two months? No, you’re not! It would be embarrassing.” Well, let me tell you what would be embarrassing: being a grown woman who thinks she’s just too good for certain jobs and decides to live off of the efforts of others – some of whom, by the way, work at Tim Hortons.
Maybe it would have been easier to wrap my head around the idea of an extra-terrestrial visit than my colleague’s train of thought. How can one think that certain jobs are unworthy? How can working hard, whether you scrub floors or manage a multinational, ever be something to be ashamed of? Maybe it looks easy to talk about the virtues of hard work when I myself have, I will admit, quite a comfortable life. So yes, maybe you’re thinking I couldn’t possibly know what I am talking about. Let me start by telling you that one of the brightest people I have ever met – who is also nowadays one of the most well-paid – has had to collect garbage on the street in the past to afford food. Funny enough, I have never heard her say that there is any such thing as a shameful job. Let me also share something a little more personal: I come from a family of immigrants who left Europe after WWI and spent their first forty days in South America eating nothing but stale bread. Ironically, they too never mentioned anything about shameful jobs. It almost makes me wonder if there is some common link here?
Yes, I am fortunate enough to come from an upper middle class family. A family that has worked very hard to pull themselves out of poverty. I am also extremely proud to have the parents that I do. A father born shortly after WWII, who, as the son of German immigrants, was often beat on his way to school – and still walked more than 10 miles a day, everyday, to get an education. Who grew up in a house with no running water, no electricity, and at times no food. A father who has been getting up for work at five in the morning since he was a little boy – and still does today, some 60 years later. Who went from impoverished first generation immigrant to business owner, and still scrubs the floor with his employees when needed. A mother who worked full-time throughout all of her university years. A mother who, in spite of having an IV connected to her, still works 15-hour days. Both amazing people who traded sleep for work to ensure that their daughter had access to the opportunities they never had growing up. Both people whose dedication literally changed my life.
I have never, ever, heard either one complain that work was hard or unworthy. All I have heard from them was that I needed to become an independent woman and create the life I want for myself. Perhaps most importantly though, they taught me that no one in this world owes me, or you, or anyone, anything. Now tell me: how can I find it shameful to work at Tim Hortons? The real shame here would be in letting my family know that after all their efforts, they have raised an individual who thinks it better to rely on others than to get up and work, whatever the work is.