The Term “Essential Business” is a Misnomer that Caused Unnecessary Suffering

In college, I took several sociology courses. I still remember the professor’s opening remark in the class Social Problems, “The most important part of a social problem is defining the problem, because we pursue remedies based on how the problem is defined.”

Sounds self-evident. But this insight is not simplistic. How we define an issue makes all the difference. Naming a social issue or problem wrongly can be expensive, frustrating, and will cause unnecessary suffering.

Consider the declaration of “war on poverty” from the 1960s Great Society programs or of “war on drugs” in recent decades. How much did the “wars” turn from poverty and drugs to poor people and drug users?

What if the efforts were called “rectifying inequality in economic development and outcomes for the sake of a flourishing democracy” and “helping people deal with their mental health, support families, and develop job skills during a period of rapid transition from an industrial economy to a tech-digital-knowledge economy”? I know, the efforts would need more memorable phrasing (liberals are terrible at bumper-sticker decrees), but you get the picture.

A recent example of a mis-named social issue is the designations of workers and businesses as “essential” or “non-essential,” and then making those designations the basis for whether or not a business could remain open during the high-transmission phase of the pandemic.

Profiles of Portland’s essential workers Oregonian Staff

The connotations for “essential” provoked anger, confusion, frustration, and misunderstanding. I’m sure that officials and well-meaning bureaucrats who developed the term meant to name a category of work that included fundamental functions for society to function at all: respond to  emergencies, utility and infrastructure maintenance, food supply, health care, and the like. Fixing a broken water main is essential. Providing salon services is not. Seems self-evident.

But then came the specifications for essential and non-essential. The powers that be separated the sheep and from the goats. Liquor stores were sent to the sheep and houses of worship to the goats. Liquor stores are essential while houses of worship are not? While I can joke about how scotch might be considered essential during a shelter-at-home pandemic, in all seriousness, how are liquor stores essential if what we mean by “essential” is sine qua non: without this, society is endangered?

Using the language of “essential” caused unnecessary anger and real suffering, while that usage did not address the core issues that needed to be managed: restrict the human interactions that spread the killing virus.

There are two reasons why using the category of “essential” was the wrong way to name the issue.

The first reason is because the danger of transmitting the virus is increased by the density of people, in close proximity, indoors, breathing the same air, for an extended period of time. Therefore, a choir practice is a highly dangerous place, as is evident by several tragic real-life examples where more than half a choir was sickened during a choir practice and some persons then died. Giving hugs, singing, laughing together at weddings and crying at funerals, sharing food, group recitation of prayers—all these activities are dangerous during a pandemic featuring an aerosolized killer.

In contrast, visiting a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine or scotch is fairly low-risk unless someone with the virus coughs on you.

The category of “essential business” tells us nothing about risk of transmission at a liquor store or at a church, and transmitting the virus was the risk government officials sought to mitigate with the categories. “Essential” is the wrong term.

The other reason that the category of essential business failed to define the issue is because of the insult and, in some cases, injury suffered by persons whose work or business was considered “non-essential.”

Who wants to think their work is non-essential? One’s work is often tethered intimately to income, to “making a living.” Work pays the bills. And for many of us, work is an expression of who we are, it is an extension of ourselves, an aspect—sometimes even a defining aspect—of our identity. That is certainly the case for small business owners who put everything they have, including investments from family and friends, into starting a business that was then critically endangered by a shutdown of indeterminate length.

To be labeled “non-essential” is more than a misnomer; it feels like an assault, or at least like a random act of “I don’t care.” A pastor’s comments in a news article expressed the pain and confusion well: “A liquor store is essential but church is non-essential? I just want someone to acknowledge that my work matters.”

From a religious point of view, in many traditions, work is a sacred gift to human beings. The Divine extends to humankind the privilege and responsibility of working together to care for each other and to finish and, when necessary, repair the world.

All work that improves society and/or heals the planet is good work! The freedom to do good work is not an optional freedom. It is one of the defining freedoms that makes us human. The freedom to work is an essential freedom.

Work is essential for human living and flourishing. To attach the word “non-essential” to work is going to be met with resistance. Connecting “non-essential” to work during a global pandemic when people fear for their futures, their businesses, their ability to make a living and provide for their families, leads to unnecessary suffering.

The act of naming is a powerful moral responsibility.


Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here.

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