Pay without Work: Is the Government Deal a Good One?
Religion & Liberty Online

Pay without Work: Is the Government Deal a Good One?

It sounds like a late-night tv scam: make tens of thousands of dollars and don’t work at all! And yet, it turns out that the U.S. government is offering just such a deal. For instance, a welfare recipient in the state of Connecticut can make up to $38,761, according to a new Cato Institute study. In Hawaii, the figure is $49,175, over 200 percent above the Federal Poverty Level. As The Heritage Foundation has pointed out, nearly half of Americans pay no income tax at this point in history.

Michael Tanner and Charles Hughes have written “Work versus Welfare Trade-off 2013: An Analysis of the Total Level of Welfare Benefits by State.” Tanner has this to say about paying people not to work:

To be clear: There is no evidence that people on welfare are lazy. Indeed, surveys of them consistently show their desire for a job. But they’re also not stupid. If you pay them more not to work than they can earn by working, many will choose not to work.

While this makes sense for them in the short term, it may actually hurt them over the long term. One of the most important steps toward avoiding or getting out of poverty is a job.Only 2.6 percent of full-time workers are poor, vs. 23.9 percent of adults who don’t work. And, while many anti-poverty activists decry low-wage jobs, even starting at a minimum-wage job can be a springboard out of poverty.

Thus, by providing such generous welfare payments, we may actually not be helping recipients.

Welfare, in and of itself, is not “bad.” Every society needs a safety net for those who for one reason or another need temporary (and that’s a key word) assistance for food, housing and other essentials. Optimally, these needs should be met at the local level: by family, by churches and community organizations, etc. And it must be acknowledged that many people use welfare benefits (which is a rather catch-all phrase for a multitude of state and government programs) for only a short period of time. However, as Tanner and Hughes point out, for far too many people, welfare becomes a lifelong addiction, for lack of a better word.

We can talk about government spending, waste, fraud and big government, but there is something more fundamentally important here. It is not good for humans to consistently get something for nothing. Work is good for us because we are made to work. Chuck Bentley of Crown Financial Ministries says this:

Work gives meaning to life. It is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” This quote, by Lester DeKoster, the former director of the Calvin College and Seminary library, condenses the importance of this simple yet profound truth, that work is the basis for all that we are put on earth to accomplish.

You and I were designed by God to work. Work is not a curse that we must endure, it is the way we experience purpose, meaning and joy. It’s what we were created to do — work and produce. In fact, not working takes a greater toll on us in the long run. I don’t mean resting and taking care of our bodies, but avoiding work altogether, which is the road to misery and ruin.

That’s strong language: avoiding work leads to “misery and ruin.” To be in a constant state of reliance and reception can lead one to believe that they have nothing to offer society, nothing to give that is of value. Bl. John Paul II, in a visit to South Korea in 1984 said,

So we know, not only by reason alone but through revelation, that through their work people share in the Creator’s work. We continue it and, in a sense, perfect it by our own work, our toil, by daily effort to wrest a livelihood from the earth, or from the sea, or by applying energy to the many different processes of production…. Indeed, we Christians are convinced that the achievements of the human race—in art, science, culture and technology—are a sign of God’s greatness and the flowering of God’s mysterious design.

Human beings need to work. We’re designed to be creative, to share our work with others, to work cooperatively in order to shape our families, our communities, our societies. To make not working so attractive is to the detriment of the human soul, and does indeed create misery. What is needed are more jobs, more opportunities, more ways to help people develop their gifts, talents and skills in order to work and earn, to contribute and to accomplish.


Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.