The Welfare Of Dignity


In the wake of the federal budget, there has been a lot of talk about the "dignity" of work and the ideal of workforce participation. But how can we understand dignity in this context? What does welfare mean? Can we have dignity when we are financially dependent?

When I was a kid and wondering aloud about what I was going to be when I grew up, my mother, if she was part of these musings, had two favourite responses. "Don’t be a nurse, be a doctor" and "Always have your own money". She was a nurse who worked part time through most of my childhood, and I know she felt both patronised by doctors and undervalued for her work. Her message was about independence, dignity and personal welfare. Even as a very young child I knew she was saying that I should never depend on anyone else to take care of me. I took this to heart, and for most of my life I never did.

Then I had a child. For the first year of her life both my partner and I were at home living on a small inheritance. He spent most of that year trying to launch his creative work, and together we did our best to care for our first and only baby. I have to admit that during those first three years I stopped thinking about what my mother and many others of her generation of women had said about money and independence. I did not feel a loss of dignity in leaving paid work, because I had a supportive partner and I was parenting in a time when stay-at-home mothering was in vogue.

Almost two years later I went back to work part time, and in the incredibly demanding balancing act of our tiny unsupported nuclear family, I lost sight of my financial independence. In that little boat that we were floating in during those years, there was a terrible choice between money and time. I chose time.

I don’t regret my two years at home with a baby, and the choice to work mostly part time since then, and like many women I would prefer to work less if given the choice. But 10 years down the track I was only just earning what I was when I left on maternity leave, trudging home with my giant belly, and 15 years on the cost of those years at home is only greater.

Now that I have an adolescent daughter, the conversations about money and dependence have started again. And I want to say the same things my mother did. Not so much about nursing, but that most relationships end, and when they do, all the choices you’ve made about money and your own welfare will come into stark relief.

In my mother’s generation of middle class western women, those born during World War II, divorce was a financial nightmare for women and children. There was a wave of divorce in the lives of the families around me as a child in the early 1970s, and over and over women and children went from comfort to poverty, while their husbands’ and fathers’ financial trajectory remained relatively unchanged. As those women approach their 70s and 80s, the effect of the choices they made to stay at home with their children is in many cases even more apparent. So-called welfare payments of course never came close to filling the gap of those lost years of earnings.

As I look back on my own choices, I wonder not simply about the money, but the dignity associated with work. In the new push in this country to force people into paid work who were previously on full time benefits, I wonder not just about financial independence, but about the fear of dependence and the meaning of self sufficiency.

If you’ve ever experienced financial dependence as an adult, through disability, illness, childrearing or caring duties, you will know that the dignity you feel or do not feel under the circumstances has very little to do with receiving help and much more to do with how much of yourself and your personal control you have to give up in order to receive that help. Financial assistance that supports personal dignity allows us to still maintain control over our financial choices and to be a part of the process of allocating funds, rather than passive recipients of an allowance doled out by another. Eileen Zimmerman made this point well in an article on money and marriage recently.

This is of course also part of the debate about the Centrelink financial quarantining system in Indigenous communities. Whether or not a financial plan is protective and makes good sense is not the issue here. When we have no control over our finances and no understanding of how financial decisions are being made on our behalf, then we have been robbed of some of our dignity. This is not welfare but financial control.

But self-sufficiency is also an illusion. We are none of us truly self-sufficient. All of us are dependent on one another and more at some times of our lives than others. All of us receive some kind of welfare support. But it is our experience of dependency, of what it was like for us when we were first cared for by another, that really touches our feelings of worth when we are facing financial dependence either through choice or necessity.

As children, were we loved and respected even in our dependent state, or were we treated as a burden, undermined or undervalued? In other words, were we treated with dignity? If we were not treated as valuable in our dependence, we may continue to look even as adults, for that experience of being truly cared for by another.

In a similar way, our independence may have been undermined, particularly as children. Did we feel guilty when we left our parents behind? Did we feel responsible for their happiness? Were we given the skills to live independently? If our independence was undermined, we are likely to value it so highly that we become unable to comfortably depend on another. We may also become rescuers of others, and thus undermine their personal dignity and independence over time.

It’s so incredibly important to be busy in this culture, that being occupied has become a kind of stand-in for having purpose and meaning in our lives. We’re all supposed to be busy. There is shame connected with so-called idleness. Real idleness, when we are not fulfilling our potential as human beings carries its own inherent shame. And the antidote to this is not coercion to work, but real considered exploration of our talents and desires and the true acceptance that we all have something to offer and that each of our contributions will be unique.

I suspect that the current prominence of the rhetoric around the dignity of work and the concern about welfare has more to do with our ongoing resentment about how much most of us are now working, than with a real concern that welfare is undermining the dignity of those who are not in paid work. If this was our real concern, we would be looking more to the obstacles in the way of working than to making welfare payments less accessible.

Dignity cannot be enforced. Dignity is about respect and a sense of inherent self worth and a right to a part of the world. The dignity of so-called honest labour is about valuing our own and others’ contributions regardless of status, money earned and current social trends. So when we think about our working contribution and about the need for welfare, dignity is a most useful concept against which to measure our own labour in the world.


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