Are We Destroying the Dignity of Work?

I had a conversation with a friend last week.  He is the classic American success story.  He came to the United States in 1997 from eastern Europe.  He had virtually nothing.  He worked hard and eventually started his own landscaping business.  He did what countless immigrants have done: he made sure his daughter did well in school.  He told me how she came to work with him one day as a teenager and she could not fathom how hard he worked.  He said, “I told her I do this so you do not have to.  Make me proud.”  She has.  His eyes lit up when he told me she just graduated with a master’s degree and secured a very high paying job.

He then told me that he is concerned about his business.  He is down from 7 to 3 full-time employees.  One former employee is collecting disability based on a claim my friend called “dubious.”  The other 3 are collecting unemployment because “it is easier than coming to work.”  His business has more work than ever but he is unable to get it all done.  He told me in a voice of someone who learned English as a second language, “Brian, I do not understand how the system can survive.  You cannot have three people working to support the other four.  The math does not work.  I do not understand how someone does not want to work.  One of the happiest days of my life was cashing my first paycheck.  What are we doing?”

As rumors of another stimulus plan are coming out of Washington D.C., I think he raises a great question: what are we doing?  An advanced society should have a safety net but people respond to incentives.  If that safety net encourages people who are capable of working to not work, that is what they will do.  Twenty five years ago, President Bill Clinton said, “Simply put, welfare reform worked because we all worked together.”  It is amazing and scary that no politician from either party today talks about getting people back to work; they talk about sending checks to people, even those that are working.  Our labor force participation rate is low again. This will not end well. 

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