The Blight Of Worklessness
Religion & Liberty Online

The Blight Of Worklessness

Work is good. It gives meaning and purpose to our lives. It affords us an avenue for our God-given talents. It provides our income, gives service to others, and fashions our society. We are, in God’s image and likeness, workers and creators.

Reihan Salam and Rich Lowry, at National Review Online, are talking about the need for work; not just jobs, but work – real, meaningful work. In their discussion, they note that the Democratic party (the “blue collar” party) doesn’t seem as interested in work as it once was. In fact, now the Democrats want to “liberate” us from work. Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader, said in an interview with CNN that Americans, freed from working 40-hour weeks, could now “follow one’s passion.” Clearly, Pelosi is unaware that many of us find passion IN our work.

Salam and Lowry say that this attitude is the hallmark for this era: “Worklessness is a central challenge of our time.” It’s not just that people don’t have jobs, or their hours are being cut so that employers can avoid giving benefits, or that hiking the minimum wage will actually put more people out of work. No, say Salam and Lowry. It’s far more than that:

What are the effects of worklessness?

As one would expect, it blights people’s economic prospects. “Even in good economic times,” Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation write, “the average poor family with children has only 800 hours of total parental work per year — the equivalent of one adult working 16 hours per week. The math is fairly simple: Little work equals little income, which equals poverty.” In Expanding Work Programs for Poor Men, Lawrence M. Mead, a professor of politics at New York University, observes that the worklessness problem persisted even during the tight labor markets of the late 1990s. Worklessness contributes to poverty when we are at the peak of the business cycle as well as the trough…

More fundamentally, it eats away at people’s sense of identity and even increases the odds that they will commit suicide. Work is good for people. [emphasis added]

Worklessness stagnates people. It stops people from moving up economically, from getting higher education and continuing to learn throughout their careers. Worklessness becomes a rut from which people cannot move. What to do?

David Beckworth and Ramesh Ponnuru have argued…that if the Federal Reserve keeps the growth of nominal spending and nominal income on a steady path, we will see a far more robust labor-market recovery. Achieving full employment is a crucial first step, as periods of full employment are also periods during which inflation-adjusted incomes rise for all households, including those at the bottom of the ladder.

Tax reform, and particularly cuts in taxes on business investment, has great potential as a spur to job creation. In 2006, the economists Kevin A. Hassett and Aparna Mathur found that higher corporate taxes lead to lower wages. The higher wages that would result from lower corporate taxes would go a long way toward making work more attractive. And, on a smaller scale, Republicans should, of course, oppose anything that tends to reduce jobs or lock people out of the job market, from restrictions on carbon emissions to occupational-licensing requirements at the local level.

Finally, Salam and Lowry say that we Americans need to re-visit the work ethic of our forebears. We need to know that no job is beneath us, too dirty for us, to difficult. As Ashton Kutcher has said, “Opportunity looks a lot like hard work…I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than.”

In his book, Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (And Action), Jordan Ballor reminds us that work is “a form of stewardship that God has provided” for us in order to serve each other and to further cultivate God’s creation. “This isn’t some easy task that might be check off a list and dispensed with, but is rather a deeply meaningful responsibility laid upon each and every human person.”

The blight of worklessness then is not simply not having a job. It is the loss of a place in the created order, the loss of dignity of giving one’s all to a higher purpose (even if that purpose is feeding the pigs that will eventually feed the people), the loss of worth and service in culture and society. The blight of worklessness is not just about a paycheck; it’s about losing the opportunity to pursue the good that God has in store for each of us.

Elise Hilton

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