Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lost Work

I'm not much for demons and angels. As odd as it may be, I tend to skew pretty far to the side of empiricism when it comes to belief. That being said, I absolutely see poverty as a demonic force. I've probably mentioned this a time or two before, but I don't mean demonic in the sense of sentient. I don't think there's an insidious force out there willfully pulling strings to impoverish people; I just don't. I do believe, however, that there are forces we've (human beings) have constructed which have grown beyond our ability to control. Poverty is one of those things.

Our modern solution to poverty - the Welfare State - is likely another. We've battled one demon with another and it's left us with a different, albeit similar mess. We now can guarantee most people (at least most people in the West) bare minimums for food, clothing, shelter, even some health care, certainly at a level to which a large part of the world's population can only aspire. Poverty in the US is just not the same as poverty in Thailand or Malawi.

Of course, we've also created a more or less permanent underclass. As crass an unseemly as Mitt Romney's deathknell quote might be, there is some part of that 47% which really is entitled and dependent and irresponsible. It may be a small part; it may be large. You all can fight about those numbers somewhere else. The truth is, a Welfare State teaches people to be dependent and entitled because it treats them that way. Work ethic, education, self-reliance all break down over time - certainly not universally among the poor, but as an inevitable cultural shift among some.

It's an unfortunate cyclical pattern. Those who tout the benefits of a Welfare State are just as correct as those who caution against its drawbacks. Change is inevitable. This solution to poverty will be followed by a solution of its own. I apologize for being negative, but I don't expect whatever comes next to be much better - different, for sure, but with similar problems - a new demon.

It's inevitable because the same refusal to sacrifice that gave us our societal demons in the first place will equally prevent us fully addressing them. As the Welfare State was the easy way out of poverty, so whatever comes next will be the easy way out again. The path of progress is the path of least resistance. I won't deny it's progress of a sort, but it's only progress from the starting point, not progress towards a solution - more like walking around in circles than anything else.

Writ large this problem stems from sacrifice, or the lack of it (we're not going to solve big problems until we're willing to put the comfort, benefit, and even survival or others, perhaps undeserving others, ahead of our own). However, in microcosm, I think our direct problem comes from disconnecting work from wealth. That's not just an indictment of the Welfare State, but of private welfare states known as families. We give money to the poor whether they work or not (we often make it easier to get help without work), but we also give money to the rich without work (it's called inheritance, and sometimes it's just called letting your deadbeat 29 year old live in the basement).*

You hear this notion of reconnecting welfare and work a lot from the conservative side of the table. I think there's real value there (so long as we recognize the genuine pain such a transition will cause for those who've been taught to operate in a culture of dependence over the course of generations, and make proper, gracious preparations to work through it). What those advocates sometimes forget is that the same notion behind connecting wealth and work for the poor is the notion that led to things like inheritance tax or the 90% tax bracket (things that group is generally against). The idea is that no one should unduly benefit from someone else's work. I'm not saying I agree with those principles and practices exactly, just pointing out they come from the same place.

There is a real racial argument to be made, at least in the US. There are some who say welfare, which goes disproportionately to African Americans, is the least the country can do for a people who've been so badly abused over time. "Our mothers and fathers have already worked for this money. We're just getting it now on their behalf." It's a similar argument to that of inheritors: "My parents worked hard to make this money, it should stay in the family (if they so desire)."

Both of those claims may be true. I will readily admit that self-determination is an important right for all individuals, however, I don't believe society has the responsibility to always make it easy. I don't have the right to determine right and wrong for you, but we as a group can decide what's right and wrong for us as a group. You don't have to like it and we can't force you to follow it (or we shouldn't, at least), but we also don't have to make it easy for you to step out on your own.

We fail as a society because we don't recognize work as a human right. It's more than just making sure people are accountable for the thing they're given, there is a basic human need to work. When we incentivize not working - in whatever ways we do, rich or poor - we dehumanize each other.

As a Christian, I take scripture seriously (or I try hard to). Genesis chapter 2 say pretty clearly humans were made to work. That doesn't equate to painful, unending, backbreaking toil, but there's something to be said for getting one's hands dirty on a regular basis (even if it's just proverbial dirt). We're designed to be actively engaged in caring for the world (and that's not just environmental claptrap, we're all a part of the world. Work is an integral part of what it means to be human. I think that if we can reclaim work for the good it is - and not just as an economic necessity, we can begin to tackle our demons, or at least avoid creating any more.

*I've got nothing against charity or generosity, in fact I think we need more of both. Beyond that, I believe we need to give to undeserving, disrespectful, irresponsible, and uncooperative people simply because they're people. I'm fairly confident we can provide for people without enabling them; I think most of us have experienced exactly that at some point in our lives. The big problem is that such provision requires a relational investment - we put ourselves, our lives on the line. That's generally seen as above and beyond the call of duty. It's a shame.

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