On the dignity of work versus the full stomach

The left’s “big mistake” is offering people “a full stomach — and an empty soul,” U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan told attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last Thursday. Ryan had already warned of the welfare state’s threat to America’s work ethic last month, saying that benefits from the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) could discourage low-income families from “getting the dignity of work” and “joining the middle class.” (See earlier blog post.)

Getting people to work is a perfect theme for the Republican Party, as a kind of tough-love way to oppose social welfare programs (and a raise in the minimum wage, based on the assumption that it would result in fewer jobs). The availability of work is another matter — both Staples and Radio Shack announced last week they were closing hundreds of stores, not a good sign for the retail sector.

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The big question, which Democrats may engage or simply evade, is whether the dignity of work must always be a higher priority than the full stomach. The ACA forces the issue by allowing some individuals, including parents and other caregivers, to drop out of the labor force rather than work to cover basic health care costs for their families. It’s also a reminder that the United States has been exceptional in drawing a thick and bright line between education and health care. (As America colleague Kevin Clarke writes, “In a sharp contrast with the more communally minded members of the industrialized West, in the United States it has become nearly an article of faith that health care is a commodity on more or less equal footing with other consumer choices.”)

Almost everyone supports free public education through high school, though charging tuition would surely motivate heads of low-income households to work longer hours and take second jobs so their children could get diplomas. As the debate over the ACA as shown, there is no such consensus on providing a minimum level of health care. A large segment of the electorate puts it on the other side of that bright line.

In his CPAC speech, Ryan implied that the bright line also runs between schools and school lunches, with a since-debunked tale about a child who said he didn’t want a free meal. (“He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids … because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the left does not understand.”) Being publicly labeled as “needy” may well be damaging to a student’s self-esteem, but last fall the Boston public school system responded to this economic segregation by providing free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of financial circumstances. Does the Boston solution harm the work ethic and encourage dependence on the government?

Technology is raising other questions about the bright line between what government should provide and what must be earned. Take, for example, “Obamaphones,” or subsidized phone service that actually precedes the Obama administration by almost three decades (and is partly based on the premise that job seekers don’t get very far without phones). Internet access may also come to be seen as an essential service for American households; it too is becoming a prerequisite for finding and applying for jobs.

Promoting the work ethic without pre-conditions

Three days before CPAC, the House Budget Committee, chaired by Ryan, released a 204-page report on “The War on Poverty” that also hammered home the theme of social welfare programs harming the work ethic. It highlights three “causes of poverty”: the “breakdown of the family,” the “lack of affordable [college] education” and a decline in workforce participation, with the authors noting that 88 percent of working-age men had or were seeking jobs in 2013, down from 97 percent in 1965. The report’s introduction is more subtle than a typical campaign speech; rather than characterize welfare recipients as lazy, the authors criticize the “disarray” and lack of coordination among anti-poverty initiatives (which protects the existence of “counterproductive” and redundant programs) and point out that means-tested welfare programs can penalize recipients who take on work (“… benefits decline as recipients make more money — poor families face very high implicit marginal tax rates. The federal government effectively discourages them from making more money”).

Ryan’s report could help lead to more efficient implementation of anti-poverty programs, though congressional Republicans have not shown much interest in fixes to the Affordable Care Act (preferring outright repeal). One bipartisan move could be to raise the Earned Income Tax Credit, which allows low-income workers to keep more of their wages and thus offset any loss in government benefits. But as Jonathan Chait notes:

The ultimate trouble is that the EITC costs money. And when you get into the gritty reality, Republicans are not willing to devote resources to it.… Obama proposes in his budget to offset the cost by closing tax deductions for the rich, but obviously Republicans would never agree to that either.

In this case, the conflict may not be the dignity of work versus a full stomach, but rather the work ethic versus the Calvin Coolidge-era desire for a balanced budget. There’s a similar conflict in saying we must do all we can to put more Americans to work, but the number of public-sector jobs must continue to go down, down, down. To the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, it seems, work is good for the soul, but there is nothing dignified about a job with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Whether or not it’s Paul Ryan, there will likely be a Republican presidential candidate in 2016 who proposes work incentives without the pre-condition that they must be compatible with the war on government. That could be a key to winning a national election, as opposed to capturing the House with a minority of the vote.

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