Reclaiming Work as a Virtue

Increasingly we hear the idea there’s something wrong with wanting people to work. We hear welfare recipients shouldn’t be expected to work. We hear that requiring people to do work or activities in return for welfare is exploitation and wrong. That moving people from welfare to work is unfair because they’ll become part of the “working poor”. That some jobs, like seasonal fruit picking or even work someone is overqualified for, are just not good enough to expect people to go off welfare. That there aren’t enough jobs for unemployed people. That employers discriminate against older and disabled workers so there’s no point them trying.

When I first heard the expression “working poor” I had to ask for an explanation; even then I didn’t understand. People on welfare already live in poverty. So those who warn that welfare-to-work will create a working poor are really saying: being poor is undignified enough, it’s an added indignity to be poor and working. This is a terrible outlook. My family was part of the working poor my entire childhood. Working wasn’t an indignity. It was a source of pride. I’d choose to be part of the working poor over the welfare poor any day. Being in a job – any job – makes the next job opportunity – a permanent job, a higher paid job, a better job – much more likely.

Even outside of the welfare reform debate, we hear anti-work rhetoric. We hear it’s unfair if some people earn less than others, even if they’re less experienced or capable. The latest anti-work political idea is that governments should pay everyone a non-means tested Universal Basic Income with no obligation to work because it’s imagined most jobs will disappear.

The overarching message from the intellectual class is that work is exploitative, an indignity, a burden; that work enforces inequality, is scarce and even endangered. At least, that is, for the downtrodden, the poor, the unskilled, those on welfare, the young, the aged and the disabled; and, in the future, for most unskilled workers.

The mindset of work as something negative is allowing many families and communities to be destroyed.

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