The Obligation to Work

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    The great welfare debate took on a more forceful tone last week with committee passage of drug-testing legislation that would, among other things, mandate community service for people receiving public assistance.

    Seems the Legislature is moving to protect a shrinking treasury following generous increases under the Obama administration. Its goal: to extricate the destitute and put them on a path to self-sufficiency.

    Some 2-million people receiving benefits from one of five welfare programs may have to participate in community service or other work-related activities in order to be eligible for the assistance. Included are those receiving cash and food assistance.

    The legislation piggybacks proposals that targets public assistance recipients for drug testing and one that denies benefits to parents who fail to make sue their children get to school on a regular basis.

    Most of us agree that society has an obligation to provide for people who can’t take care of themselves. But there is also a growing consensus that welfare recipients have an obligation to work. To better understand why they don’t, we need to examine their makeup and mentality.

    Women head the majority of households that receive this benefit. These families units have the smallest incomes, the longest stays in poverty and constitute the heaviest demand for public dollars. These families also have the least education and the highest rates of drug abuse, crime, violence and idleness.

    The core of their poverty transcends joblessness. Of course, unrealistic expectations about pay and working conditions also comes into play. Ressearch shows, for example, that the major impediment to people not making the transition from welfare to employment is their refusal to accept low-skilled, low-pay jobs. In other words, a large group of welfare recipients do not seek and do not want the jobs that match their skills.

    Many of the available jobs are part-time and tend to be service related – such as in restaurants and janitorial help. These jobs that pay less than traditional manufacturing jobs –no longer a realistic income standard – are dismissed as menial.

    The political consensus on welfare legislation assumes that among this class, the moral fabric of individuals, not a stagnant economy, causes their ranks to grow. The proof is in the generations of casualties left in the wake of years of federally sponsored poverty programs. Every program that made it easier to get off welfare made it more attractive to get on. The underclass became more intractable.

    Welfare was never intended to be a lifestyle. It was never supposed to be an enduring heirloom, passed from one generation to the next. Even taxpayers who once supported expansion of the welfare bureaucracy are no longer willing to encourage or finance dependency by paying the spiraling costs of a welfare system that has no strings attached.

    That a disproportionate number of mothers remain wedded to the system poses an ominous set of dynamics. They are perceived in the minds of many as being different, if not exempt from social norms, and immune to solutions designed to help them enter the American mainstream. To them, welfare has become an accepted economic option. Never mind that it also undermines the value of work.

    Most of us have a clear obligation to contribute to the support of our families. Opportunity is all we need to overcome unemployment. So enforcing the obligation to work – through an actual job or community service – is key to reintroducing the principles of individual initiative and personal independence. The Legislature must eliminate those perverse incentives that allow recipients to receive more money on welfare than through employment.

    Society’s best intentions have, in effect, robbed people of a sense of responsibility. True liberation of the poor from dependency requires restoring the work ethic and relegating welfare to its former status as a last resort.

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