Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is less than a week old, but the former vice-president is already positioning himself as the candidate of blue-collar America, with some success. In a move they first signaled weeks ago, the International Association of Firefighters have already endorsed Biden. The candidate packed a Pittsburgh Teamsters hall at his official campaign kickoff on Monday. There, he described himself as a “union man,” and said that the “dignity of work is my measure.” He returned to that refrain again in remarks to Iowa voters on Tuesday. As he delivered a pitch for his health-care proposal — which consists, right now, of the option to buy into Medicare — Biden spoke again of the dignity of work:
Biden’s use of the term immediately earned comparisons to Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, who recently concluded his Dignity of Work tour with the announcement that he would not run for president. But while Brown may have popularized the phrase in recent weeks, he didn’t coin it. Conservatives and liberals alike refer often to the dignity of work; for both groups, the phrase can function alternatively as a justification for cutting welfare in the name of personal responsibility, or as a stand-in for workers’ rights. Biden himself has used the phrase in older speeches, a tendency that may reflect his Catholic faith; Catholic social teaching holds that there is dignity in all work. “My parents taught us to live our faith and to treasure our families. We learned the dignity of work, and we were told that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough. That was America’s promise,” Biden told crowds at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Barack Obama, he added, understood that “work is more than a paycheck. It’s dignity. It’s respect. It’s about whether or not you can look your children in the eye and say: We’re going to be all right.”
Ten years after he delivered that speech to rapt Democratic delegates, Biden seemingly believes that its message will still resonate with voters. And he may be right. Unemployment is low, but in other respects, the average American worker lives in challenging times. Though the labor market is tightening, wage growth is slow, and it isn’t evenly distributed to all workers. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, reported in February that wage growth has largely been concentrated in the top ten percent of high-wage workers since 2007. Overall, wage growth hasn’t kept pace with rising rents or with medical expenses; a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that employers are gradually shifting more medical costs to workers, as insurance premiums continue to rise.
But America’s persistent economic inequities also put Biden in a difficult position. Key moments in his long record of public service undermine his professed commitment to the American worker and raise questions about how exactly he defines the dignity of work — whether he believes dignity rests in work itself, or whether it flows instead from the human beings who perform that work.
The national wealth gap did not spring to life the moment Donald Trump took the oath of office. Though Obama is hardly responsible for the recession of 2008, and wealth inequality had already begun to worsen by the time he and Biden entered the White House, Reuters reported in 2015 that during the Obama presidency, the economy had added jobs at the top and bottom of the wage scale, but not the middle. Income gains made over the course of the nation’s recovery from the recession weren’t evenly distributed, either. Reuters, citing the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, found that “the average net worth of families in the top 40 percent of income earners grew” from 2010 to 2013; for everyone else, incomes declined. The Affordable Care Act is a notable bright spot, as it extended necessary affordable health-care coverage to millions of Americans without it, but the home foreclosure crisis is a stain on Obama’s inequality record. “Obama the candidate ran on allowing bankruptcy judges to cut balances on primary mortgages; Obama’s administration actively whipped against the policy,” David Dayen ably argued in a 2016 piece for the Atlantic. “Obama’s transition team earmarked up to $100 billion in funds appropriated through Bush’s bank bailout to mitigate foreclosures; eight years later only around $21 billion has been spent. Obama the president promised 4 million mortgage modifications; to date less than a million have been successfully achieved.”
As Obama’s vice-president, Biden can’t exactly argue against his complicity in the administration’s foreclosure failures. His record in the U.S. Senate implicates him even more directly in America’s inequality crisis. Senator Elizabeth Warren had good reason to accuse Biden of “being on the side of the credit-card companies” at a recent Iowa rally. As Business Insider reported in April, Warren referred to a 2005 fight over the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Consumer Protection Act. Biden championed it, but Warren testified against it in her capacity as a Harvard Law School professor, arguing that it would make it more difficult for individuals to file for personal bankruptcy without penalizing credit-card companies for predatory lending practices. Biden enthusiastically supported Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform bill, which tied benefits to work, and which has, according to some research, exacerbated levels of deep poverty in the U.S.
Even some of Biden’s noneconomic policies, like his stance on crime, have had a negative impact on inequality. He spent decades championing the war on drugs, and wrote 1994’s Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, which increased the number of death-penalty offenses and contributed to an increase in mass incarceration while doing little to reduce violent crime. People born into poverty are more likely to spend time in prison, and incarceration itself has been linked to poverty; the tough-on-crime policies that Biden supported helped put millions of mostly brown and black Americans in a trap from which there are few means of escape.
Biden’s notion of bankruptcy reform didn’t assault the dignity of work. Neither did welfare reform, nor did the crime bill. Instead, these laws assaulted human beings in need. Biden’s own record reveals his catchphrase to be not just a cliché, but a cliché that links human dignity to a rigid definition of human productivity. As campaign rhetoric, it invokes arguments for welfare reform, which frame government assistance like it’s a toxin that sickens everyone who encounters it. For policy to meaningfully improve the lives of Americans suffering under the nation’s inequalities, it must reframe dignity as a human quality with no relationship to a person’s work or to their lack of it. There is no dignity to labor that human beings themselves do not bestow on it. But at certain significant moments in his career, Biden championed policies and systems that ignore, and diminish, that basic human dignity. Most incarcerated people, for example, work for less than a dollar an hour, Vox reported in 2018. Nobody loses their dignity when prison bars close in behind them, they simply enter a system where authorities pretend that dignity doesn’t exist.
Americans don’t need further grandstanding about the purported dignity of work. They need policy reforms that reflect the innate dignity of human life, and Joe Biden isn’t the candidate to deliver them.