Maybe the greatest civilizing force in society today is that most of us have to get up five days a week, take a shower, put on something presentable, if not exactly fashionable, and go to a job where, for a minimum of eight hours, we are expected to be better people than we really are in exchange for a paycheck and a dose of self-respect…or we work.
We all complain, of course, about having to go to work, about the cruelly inverse nature of the ratio of weekdays to weekends, about racing rats and climbing over bodies to get to the top of the corporate heap, but let’s be honest for a second about what work really means to each of us blessed enough to having something productive to do with our lives.
Work gives us a sense of worth, an appreciation of our value to society.
It gives us a way to measure ourselves against our peers, either by comparing the size of our paychecks or by seeing the resulting good our labors do for others. Through the thing that makes us get up in the morning and leave the house with pants on, we feel like we are, at the least, pulling our own weight, taking care of ourselves, making progress, doing something worth doing. Maybe we aren’t living our childhood dreams of being a firefighter or an astronaut or pastry chef (don’t judge), but, by and large, we are happy to have something to do that makes a difference.
Okay, sure, we do sort of hate our jobs. In fact, Forbes in 2014 claimed that 52.3% of Americans were unhappy in their jobs with, not surprisingly, lower-paid workers less happy than higher-paid ones (24.4% vs. 64.1%).
But, the happiness of employed people was off the charts compared to that of those who were unemployed.
The Happiness Report
The Harvard Business Review, citing the World Happiness Report, determined that people not actively employed experienced 30% more negative emotions each day than those in the work force.
Harvard described unemployment as “destructive to people’s well-being” and offered that the paycheck isn’t what makes a worker happier than a person who has no job. Instead, it is the labor itself.
“The importance of having a job extends far beyond the salary attached to it. A large stream of research has shown that the non-monetary aspects of employment are also key drivers of people’s well-being. Social status, social relations, daily structure, and goals all exert a strong influence on people’s happiness.
Not only are the unemployed generally unhappier than those in work, we find in our analyses that people generally do not adapt over time to becoming unemployed.
More than this, spells of unemployment also seem to have a scarring effect on people’s well-being, even after they have regained employment.”
His point was that it is the act of work, the labor and effort involved in doing something productive, that provides value to the doer. Even more than the paycheck, the sense of accomplishment that accompanies a job done well is the reward of work.
So, imagine what we do to people when we take the gift of productive labor away from them. Imagine what life without constructive contribution is like for those living it, for people who get up in the morning and have nothing compelling ahead of them.
I am not suggesting that people who are unemployed live meaningless lives. They may very well have many other ways in which they contribute greatly to those around them, to their communities and civic organizations. Certainly, stay-at-home parents and caregivers perform jobs that contribute greatly to society, often in ways that can’t be expressed in simple financial terms. We, as a society, value these people greatly, not only for the work they do, but for the lasting legacy they leave.
Defined by what we “do”
But we live in a country where many of us define ourselves by what we “do,” meaning what occupation we hold from which we draw our income. Depriving someone of a job, of the ability to spend time constructively in return for compensation for their labors, takes from them the ability to claim a role, a contribution, to society. When asked what they “do,” they aren’t able to say, “I do this.” Instead, they say, “I am unemployed.”
For those Americans whose time on unemployment has led them to where they have no choice but to ask the government for assistance, for those for whom welfare is the only option, the loss of status is the greatest. For these people, the cycle of dependence on government assistance can become a trap.
When help becomes a trap
The reality is that most people on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Food Stamps do work, but, for many, especially those in the most economically depressed areas, the work that is available doesn’t pay enough to feed, clothe and house families. This is why many low-wage earners are forced to go on some sort of government assistance program.
Unfortunately, for many, entering into public assistance programs can become a trap from which escaping is very difficult. In fact, according to the Urban League, 22% of people who go off assistance eventually go back on. And while most (56%) get off within three years, according to The Huffington Post, nearly half the American population lives in a household where at least one resident gets some sort of government assistance.
And this is the problem.
The United States is slowly becoming a nation where reliance on government programs to support families or supplement their needs is becoming so common and accepted that there is little or no stigma associated with the reliance. Where once this nation was made up of people who prided themselves on prospering without the assistance of the government, even in the most difficult of times, we are now becoming a country where many citizens expect the government to provide them with regular monetary help. And they expect this help without doing anything in return to earn it.
In fact, of 69 federal government programs, only two require recipients of assistance to work in return for the support, according to the Heritage Foundation. There used to be a third program, TANF, but President Obama eliminated President Clinton’s work requirement in 2015. The problem with not requiring recipients of aid to work is it, effectively, takes them out of the social environment in which workers network and find new and better opportunities, making the chance of leaving assistance for a better life much more difficult.
Furthering the trap
Dr. Matthew Spalding of Hillsdale College, put it this way,
“Under a culture of dependency, poverty becomes a trap, and recipients get stuck. Long-term welfare recipients lose work habits and job skills and miss out on the marketplace contacts that lead to job opportunities. That’s a key reason the government should require welfare recipients to work as much as they can. What could be called “workfare” thus tends to increase long-term earnings among potential recipients.”
Currently, those dependent on welfare who are trying to leave programs for jobs lose program benefits that are often greater than the paychecks they receive for the work they do. Allowing recipients to keep their benefits while they work in income-producing jobs will reap benefits down the road as more and more people develop the experience, skills, relationships and connections that are only available to those in the workplace.
Reconsidering the plan
One of the simplest things governments can do is stop penalizing low-income earners for getting married. Under current welfare laws, if a single mother on welfare marries a man who earns low wages, she loses her benefits and he is penalized financially for taking a wife and child into his family.
The government is, therefore, either incentivizing the mother to stay on assistance or the man to forego marriage. Considering the poverty rate for female-headed households with children is six times greater than for married couples with children, it makes a great deal of sense to write policies that encourage as many couples to marry as possible.
Ultimately, the goal should be to get as many people working as possible and to encourage the formation of functional families. To break the cycle of poverty and to give all Americans the chance at a better life filled with dignity and hope for the future, programs that value and support the benefits of work could go a long way towards achieving that aim.
About this author:
Tony Wyman ~ became a conservative at 15 years of age after meeting Ronald Reagan in 1976. Ten years later, it was President Reagan's signature that commissioned Wyman as an officer in the United States Air Force. During his time in the Air Force, which he spent in The Philippines, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, he met a young ROTC cadet from Miami University of Ohio named Terri McLaughlin who, in an act of generosity and compassion, agreed to marry Wyman in 1988. For no reason anyone can explain, she remains married to him to this day. The couple have five children, one for each dog that share the family's Dayton, Ohio home.
In addition to serving in the Air Force, Wyman was a newspaper reporter, a political consultant and speech writer, and put in more than 20 years in home construction and the safety industry. He also lists on his resume that he was the official mascot of a blue jean company which, still to this day, is the best job he's ever held."