Americans who have a job this Labor Day are right to be thankful for it. And all of us ought to be grateful for the culture of work that made America prosperous.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Americans are working: Only 58 of every 100 citizens are employed, down from about 63 in June 2007. Much of that can be attributed to the bad economy. But our culture and government policies also undermine the importance of work.
For those of us who haven’t found a job, or have supported friends and family in that circumstance, talk of the “recovery summer” was a dreadful joke. Some are going to school, hoping the economy will have turned around by the time they graduate.
But after five years, some ask: “Is this the new normal?”
Subpar growth and economic malaise don’t have to be normal any more than “stagflation” was in the late 1970s. Investment, jobs, and confidence can be restored with sound free-market policies.
A robust economy isn’t just important for our nation’s fiscal health and our individual material wellbeing. Just as marriage predates government, so does work. Americans long have understood work as vocation, a calling and a duty to God and neighbor — whether by farming, shop keeping or mopping floors. In the process, man could find some measure of fulfillment, knowing that working hard was good for society as well as his soul.
For some, though, work doesn’t come easy. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Wanting to work is so rare a merit that it should be encouraged.” Lincoln probably had read Paul’s more blunt command in the New Testament: “Those who do not work shall not eat.”
The subtle change in our cultural attitude toward work must not become the new normal, either. In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray writes that a substantial majority of Americans, when asked what they most prefer in a job, for many years said work that was important and gave them a feeling of accomplishment. The smallest number said short work hours or no danger of being fired.
These answers were remarkably consistent from 1973 to 1994. But by 2006, the next time Americans were asked, the number saying they most preferred short hours or job security each more than doubled. Those choosing important, satisfying work dropped by nearly a quarter, to 43 percent.
This is a dangerous shift in our thinking about work — a change from something we do as a vocation to something that produces a payday with the least inconvenience.
Some politicians and pundits talk about “jobs Americans won’t do,” as if some forms of work are beneath us. That kind of language corrupts the culture of work. It demoralizes those who understand the moral component of work and do hard work that benefits all of us, whether it’s picking crops, cleaning offices, or pouring concrete.
Many factors are at play in our changing views. But government policy shouldn’t accelerate this trend — it should uphold a high view of work. That’s why it’s disquieting to see President Obama, under the excuse of “flexibility,” allow waiver of the work requirements for the able-bodied that made welfare reform a success in 1996.
To make matters worse, most other major public-assistance programs don’t have any work requirements — including food stamps, spending on which has quadrupled in spending since 2000. This not only costs the taxpayer dearly, it makes recipients dependent on government handouts.
One program that provides benefits for the disabled also has become an anti-work trap. Many Americans with disabilities were working when the recession hit. About 9 million people now draw a check from the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, and 990,000 joined this year alone.
America’s workplaces and homes are safer than ever, but the SSDI rolls grew by 66 percentage points in the past decade. As James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation writes in a new paper, few will ever return to the labor force. Of those who leave the disability rolls, 53 percent switch to Social Security retirement benefits, 37 percent die, and 9 percent report improved health. Very few voluntarily leave the program.
In reforming these programs, we must keep in mind that long-term dependence on government isn’t just bad for the nation’s checkbook. It also hollows out the character of the American people, because honest work brings dignity.
It’s one thing for a bad economy to discourage those who want to work. It’s quite another for our culture to discourage people from that desire.
With a robust economic plan, we can turn around the economy. And with careful government policies that encourage work, we can reinvigorate our understanding of its importance.
— Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in National Review's The Corner.