Gene Sperling on economic dignity and wage gap for frontline workers

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Nurses pose outside NYU Langone Medical Center during the nightly 7pm applause and cheers in honor of frontline medical workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, in New York, NY, May 13, 2020 Photo credit:Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/Reuters.

Martin Luther King Jr., speaking on behalf of striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee, said “all labor has dignity.” He argued that each job is essential, and that a sanitation worker is as important as a physician to our nation’s well-being. Former Obama economic advisor Gene Sperling picked up that theme in his latest book, “Economic Dignity.” Written before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, his message is prescient. Sperling summarizes some of his ideas with KCRW’s Warren Olney. This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

Warren Olney: We now celebrate health care workers and others that have been taken for granted for a long time. We’re calling them heroes. What does this have to do with economic dignity? 

Gene Sperling: “Today is that moment where people are being forced to deal with the fact that we are dependent on the farm worker, the driver, the nursing aide, and all of the frontline workers. Yet they are often among the people we treat the worst economically. 

Only half of farm workers have health care of the nursing aides and home aides taking care of our sick at this time, risking their lives. Fifty percent of them can’t take a paid day off to care for their own child or family member. And we're applauding and recognizing people as heroes. But if they do not have a living wage, if they do not have personal protective equipment, if they do not have paid sick leave for themselves, then I think the applause will start to sound and feel empty.”

How important is the definition between essential and non-essential work? 

“Morally and spiritually, we should recognize the value of all workers because they are doing their part to contribute to their family and to the country. One of the things we have to question is why we didn’t realize the people producing our food are essential to our lives, and why don't we value those jobs more? The more we value them, the more value we would get out of them. 

I call these double dignity jobs. If you treated jobs with more dignity, if the people caring for our older relatives were given more pay, more opportunity to gain skills, they would stay longer and in turn they would prevent more hospitalizations. 

So the provision of treating workers with dignity, and then giving more dignity to the people they serve can also be good because it can lead to our children being smarter and more productive members of society. This is about a belief in economic dignity of all people, but also it is the smart thing to do for long term returns for our economy and our society.”

ALSO: Later in this episode of To the Point: the U.S. Postal Service, an institution older than the U.S. Constitution, may be closing its doors. 

Declining revenues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic are crushing the agency and at a time when government support is most needed. President Trump has called the agency a “joke,” and threatened to let it go bankrupt. With the November election fast approaching is it possible to hold free and fair elections without a functioning postal service?  




Warren Olney


Andrea Brody