The value of being productive and the stigma of not

By Lindsay Advocate

The value of being productive and the stigma of not
"The way he would often walk around, his neighbour told me, made it seem like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders."

By Leah Barrett Werner

We are often told that it is important to contribute to society. Yet we do not always get to define what constitutes a meaningful contribution. To a large extent, that has been shaped by a system that values constant economic growth above all else. How we are valued is too often based upon our ability to be productive and to work.

Being able to work or not work, to be productive or idle, affects the way we feel about ourselves and our sense of value in the world. It also affects the possibilities we have in life because these values are reflected and reproduced in our economic structures and our social policies.

As a part of my research on basic income, I met a woman in Lindsay who had been receiving money under the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) for many years. She had suffered from a chronic illness for most of her life. Although wanted to work but physically couldn’t, she felt that people looked down on her for not working. That meant that she had to cope not only with chronic illness and with living on an insufficient income — which would be hard enough for most — but she also had to cope with feeling stigmatized and rejected from the category of those who are considered valuable members of society.

What is more, being “unproductive” is systemically penalized. On ODSP for instance, the amount people are expected to live on is barely enough to survive. But, we can ask, why does a policy  that acknowledges that some people cannot work still punish people and push work as the end goal?

It is in part because our social and economic policies reflect these kinds of societal values; they also play a role in producing them. As long as productivity and working is valued above all else, there will be an expectation placed on us that we should strive to be productive even when we cannot, and social assistance policies will continue to trap people in poverty.

To move toward a more inclusive and sustainable society — one where we are valued simply for being a person in the world — we must begin questioning the disproportionate value placed on work.

During my research, there was another story from Lindsay that stuck with me. It was told to me by a neighbour of an elderly man. This man had lived with back pain his whole life and had always walked hunched over. The way he would often walk around, his neighbour told me, made it seem like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

When he went on basic income he bought a new back brace, and suddenly, she told me, he was walking upright. The burden of a system that is oppressive to so many — that leaves people with so little —  had temporarily lifted.

Indeed, one way to move toward a more equitable and inclusive society can be to create new social policies such as basic income that reflect a broader set of values.

Let’s stop punishing people for not working, and instead start rethinking what really matters, what constitutes a meaningful contribution to society, and what else we can value in our shared future.

–Leah Barrett Werner is fulfilling requirements toward her master’s in the department of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. As part of her fieldwork, she spent months in Kawartha Lakes writing her thesis, When stories change our worlds: An ethnography of basic income in Lindsay, Ontario.

1 Comment

  1. Carol Bailey says:

    We should also re think the meaning of “value” and what a contribution to society looks like. All value has for the most part, been reduced to money. We assume that the value of peoples work or their time, or even their life, is equated to the money they earn for their work. Low income jobs are assumed to be of much less value that highly paid occupations. And by this way of thinking, volunteer work or otherwise unpaid labour is of no value. Yet, the majority of our “essential workers” have jobs that are low paid. Housework and raising children by the child’s mother is unpaid. On the other hand, jobs that do no more than make money from money (the financial services industry), and jobs that encourage people to buy more than they need (advertising) contributes alright..contributes to resource depletion, toxic pollution all over the planet, and to climate change. We have to re think our assumptions and our entire system of determining value. And the relationship between money and value.

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