Posted by: rebeccajrobare | April 24, 2014

Work = Virtue

Hard work is a virtue.

Virtue is its own reward.

These phrases have been echoing in my head and I have been trying to unpack their connection. If these are transitive principles, then we can read here, “hard work is its own reward.” And it does look as though we, American workers, are expected to hold to this principle, that we work hard for the work’s own sake, with no expectation of another reward. Why else does full-time minimum wage (or less, if you work in some restaurants, or have disability benefits) exist? The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 per hour. A person making this wage would earn a little more than $15,000 a year, working 40 hours per week for 52 weeks, assuming no unpaid leave or vacation. The average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment outside of Philadelphia’s city center is more than $800 per month. The $9,600 per year an $800/mo apartment would cost a minimum wage worker is 64% of this hypothetical person’s annual income.

I am hypothesizing based on averages; any individual’s experience will differ from this. But if I have $450 per month to parcel out among electric, gas, telephone, and internet, today’s basic utilities, I don’t have much left for food, leisure, or luxuries – let alone a car or transpass to get me to work, clothes and shoes to wear on the job, tuition for classes that might help me get a degree to get a higher-paying job, care for my children while I’m working, or medical co-pays (I’m assuming my employer offers a medical benefit, as I am working full-time). But now, what if I have children, who need clothes and food and help with their homework, a larger apartment than a one-bedroom? What if my child breaks her leg on the soccer field? Now she needs a hospital and follow-up and Tylenol, maybe even physical therapy. All on $7.25 an hour.

But a lot of jobs aren’t hiring full-time, because of that medical benefit. So instead of one job, I’m balancing two – with two sets of uniforms to buy and two schedules to maintain? And I have to buy my own health insurance (because I make too much money for government assistance – this is PA, without Medicaid expansion). How do I help my child with her homework and take her to soccer practice?

I’m working, remember. I’m working my ass off – maybe sixty hours a week, if both my jobs are thirty hours – but what am I working for? It’s not for a vacation, because I can’t afford to be away from work. It’s not for my retirement, because at this rate of pay I can’t save anything – forget about emergencies or a college fund for my daughter – forget about a prom dress or soccer cleats! Is it for a better life for my daughter, attending Philadelphia’s prominently overcrowded and underfunded schools? When I can’t pay for college? When she won’t be able to afford it herself working at a minimum wage job very similar to mine? Will her life be better? Will it include anything other than hard work that offers the barest subsistence in exchange?

It’s not just about the working poor, who are so euphemistically called the working class to hide the fact that they toil in poverty? (You see that it is work that defines these folk; their poverty is thought unimportant.) I myself – well educated, with my schooling largely paid for by a generous family who could afford to indulge their generosity – still graduated with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and even though I have a job that pays reasonably well, making progress in paying down that debt feels like a never-ending battle, with the constant unexpected pressures of life. For those with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans, it’s worse – their professional jobs, jobs requiring graduate degrees, don’t pay enough to make saving possible when minimum payments are due. What are we working for? It’s not likely to be private-school tuition and ballet lessons for our children, like our parents, maybe, gave to us. When my parents were my age, they knew what they were working for: a house where their daughters could have separate bedrooms, graduate tuition for my father — they gave up their own luxuries and pastimes for us, I know. But for my children, what do I have to give up? What am I working for?

And what if I am sick or disabled? My job is protected, to some degree, by FMLA, but I am guaranteed only unpaid leave, and even with my employer’s generous health insurance, there’s a limit to the copays and medications I can afford when I’m not earning. A permanent disability leaves me in a worse state, as I spend money and time to prove my disability to the satisfaction of the government, who will give me a pittance to live on as best I can, as a parasite in a society that reviles those who cannot or do not work.

So if I am working, what am I working for – if through work I cannot achieve comfort for myself or opportunity for my children? It is no wonder to me that a man might be more inclined to sit in the sunlight and beg for charity if his alternative is to work endlessly for no reward, because this way at least he has the sunlight.

So we come back to work, as a virtue – because we tell the disabled woman (especially if she is disabled by unseen pain or mental illness) or the panhandling man that they are wrong or worthless, or if we don’t say it directly, it shows in our eyes when we see them beg, or buy food with government benefits?

And what when they send out the thousandth resume with no return, when all they want to do is work – when they are forbidden from working and must hear that they are worthless without it? “Get a job,” when they are denied one, or when working at one gets one nothing but work?

Capitalism thrives on self-interest. If work is a virtue, if virtue is its own reward, then we lack self-interest as a motivator. There is nothing to work for, so there’s not much of a reason to work. And if people don’t do the work necessary to society – farming, serving food, making clothing – the work we don’t celebrate, the work that is its own, only reward – then the new oligarchs will find that their homes are not clean, their shoes not shined, their meat not cooked, and that they have sat fiddling during the fall of their world. They have become so consumed with their own selves that they have forgotten that their comforts depend on the labor of others, and they have given those others no more reason to labor. Virtue is not enough.



  1. Dear Rebecca,

    It was a pleasure to read your entry, to see that there are those who do deliberate about such topics, as you considered work and poverty not just as a problem but as it becomes a state of being for those in it.

    Life, in conceptual Toils of our time, entangles us to find that hard work is a virtue. Why virtues? So they maybe our salvation. But how can we be saved when reality,in this case economic, is more complicated and entangled for any truth to ever come unraveled from it. Truths are relative and they move in and out of relevance of our lives. Why should I take “Hard Work is a Virtue” to be true if one’s human nature cannot will to find pleasure in hard work. Are we to assume that all human beings should be compelled to believe in the same virtues, accept the same “rewards”? We Americans believe hard work to be a reward under a prescriptive unexamined beingness from our culture to our desires for the advertised “American dream”.

    I am not saying hard work is not valuable, only that it is not necessarily a virtue and thereby not a reward. Hard work is a tool like all things that aid human existence. It is to be used to cultivate a better life and never to be a principle before life itself.

    For those who suffer Toils trapped the cycles of poverty and despair, for those unfortunate losers in society obsessed with winners (winners mostly by their good fortune): Life cannot be lived for absolute reasons, for such reasons are in danger of becoming fantasies where we cling to redeem ourselves in an unredeeming world.Life can only be lived for itself, for the moment, and if suffering exists let it. Suffering is not an argument of life. Misery has it’s way to enrich life as long as it is for a life of our existence and not virtues that have known nothing about us as individuals.
    In the short time, compassion and self-education and the wisdoms of life which often are easily understood but require great practice are tools to lean on when one is in the darkest of ours. I know I too am being prescriptive here but to go into the details of such being and life would require too much time for ideas that have already been written.

    What I wish to focus on the idea of defining our own individualistic virtues that are hopefully are malleable and in nature with the flux of reality. For those who regurgitate the galvaged ideals of their past can see what reality really is, that minimum wage is not enough, poverty cycles, meritocracy fails when wealth is accumulated in the pockets of the few, and that nothing can save us from our existential angst. Perhaps then the oligarchs will have the necessary perspective to the entanglement of life and existence.

    I apologize that I was not able to drive many of my points home but I am not in the best state of mind as I right this and I have already spent way too long than I intended.
    I hope this can lead to an further interesting discussion. Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for your comments. I’m glad it was interesting to you.

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