Should the Poor be Made to Work?
Many Americans answer this question in the affirmative. The poor, they say, should not be allowed to receive assistance from the government without doing some kind of work. Recent government attempts to force work on recipients of Medicaid illustrate that conviction. If someone receives government financed health insurance, the common opinion goes, they need to have a job or work in some other way.
People have different reasons for this opinion.
A certain number are plainly racist. When they hear the word "poor" they have the image of a black person in front of their inner eye. They think that people of color are lazy ne'er-do-wells and they do not want their own taxes to support them. That reason for advocating work for the poor does not deserve discussion.
A similar reason moves those who believe that their poverty is the fault of the poor. If only they had paid better attention in school, had not gotten pregnant in their teens, had not become addicted to hard drugs. If only they had worked hard as I have always worked hard, they would not be poor. But poverty has many different causes. This kind of uninformed blaming is completely unhelpful.
But there are reasons that deserve taking seriously. One of them we often referred to as the "work ethic." Many of us believe that everyone should work. Perhaps we owe this belief to the Puritans but it is certainly true that many people in America today work a great deal. Many complain of being overscheduled, of being too busy and being stressed out by working so much. In spite of all those complaints, however, many of us believe that not working is in some way morally objectionable.
Let's look at that.
Government aid to the poor should only be given to those who work , we say, because work is what makes you a respectable citizen. But we don't have the same feelings about the errors of rich people not working. There are obviously many Americans who have inherited a great deal and can spend their days running nonprofits, going to charitable teas and cocktail parties, being photographed for the Sunday paper and sailing their yachts to the Caribbean when winter is inclement in the northern United States.
I have never heard a proposal that we should make these playboys and playgirls do an honest day's work. Our abhorrence of life without work seems to apply mostly to the poor.. Are we wanting to punish the poor for their condition when we insist on everyone working? I'm not sure.
Think some more about this moral rule that people should work. Does it matter what sort of work people do? Can one gain respectability by cleaning toilets? There are literally armies of people cleaning offices in huge skyscrapers every night. Does their life gain moral value behind their vacuum cleaners?
Not all work seems to me to be valuable. Good work is. If your working makes someone's life better, if it makes you feel that you contribute to the well-being of others, that what you do is truly worthwhile and contributes to making the world better than it is, then work is good. But not all work makes that sort of beneficial contribution to the world around you. Much of it is routine, if not downright unpleasant and it's only contribution is to make money for some corporate stockholders.
Does Sisyphus gain moral stature from his work. Working, as such, is not morally valuable.
Many people hate their jobs with a passion. They would be glad to give it up but they are not willing to leave the poor life one gets by relying exclusively on government assistance. So they go back every Monday morning looking forward to Friday night and being miserable in between and envious of people who managed to survive without the pain of a job. Why should they have to do a job they hate so much and others not?
I don't think the work requirement for the poor can be justified in that way by envy and wishing one's own pain on others.
Here another principle enters our reflection. Many people believe that one needs to be self-sufficient. There are elderly persons in our country who refuse
One can respect that attitude but it is, of course, ill-conceived. "No man is an island" as the poet said. The people who refuse government assistance will certainly call the fire department when their house is on fire, and they will call the police when a burglar breaks into their house. They may have fond memories of teachers who helped them learn their letters and parents and ministers who helped them become upstanding citizens. We all depend on each other. If you are richer than I you may pay more taxes. You may therefore contribute more to the upkeep of the roads which I nevertheless use even though I contribute hardly anything to fixing the potholes at the end of winter. Many citizens are proud of America's military might even if they have never served or if no one in their family died in America's wars. They are dependent on the military service and perhaps the death of others for their pride in their country. They sing our national anthem with tears in their eyes even though they have not written it and are perhaps completely tone deaf.
No one can claim to be independent of the support of others. Why impose that requirement on the poor?
The work requirement for those who receive government assistance cannot be justified