The Dignity of Work — A UK Model for the US

There’s diamonds in the sidewalk, the gutters lined in song.
Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long.
There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard working man,
Who’ll make his home in the American land.

Leave it to Bruce Springsteen to celebrate the value and dignity of work in one of his most patriotic songs, “American Land.” It’s not surprising that he is appreciated as one of America’s greatest musicians by people from all walks of life, from poor to rich and old to young.

One of the reasons his popularity has spanned decades is his ability to tap into the belief that “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is a quintessentially American attribute. Pursuing happiness is American in nature. And the ability to achieve the American dream through hard-earned work is also American in nature.

But what happens to this foundational belief when the “hard-working man” begins to disappear from the picture? What happens when the “treasure for the taking” is actually easier to acquire via government handout than through blood, sweat, and tears?

While millions – perhaps billions – have memorized lyrics to songs composed by The Boss, a non-American leader reminds us that our value of hard work is the only way to success. Iain Duncan Smith recently spoke about the United States’ problem with labor, welfare, and the culture of dependence and demonstrated how the trend toward dependency is preventing so many Americans from pursuing their dreams.

Smith is a British Member of Parliament whose civil service has included posts such as leader of the Conservative Party and founder and chairman of the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), “an independent think tank committed to tackling poverty and social breakdown.” Under a program he established at the CSJ, he defined the “five pathways to poverty” — educational failure, addiction, serious personal debt, worklessness and dependency, and family breakdown. He then went on to craft a plan to reduce them.

A coalition led by Smith came to power in the United Kingdom in 2010. At the time, the UK was suffering a similar problem as the United States — a decline in labor participation and a growing dependence on government largesse. Nearly 20 percent of UK households had no member in the workforce, and 1.4 million people (in a nation with 52 million individuals age 15 and over) had been on public assistance “for most of the previous decade.”

Smith and his allies implemented a series of reforms that built off the ideas proposed by the CSJ. Today, just seven years later, the United Kingdom enjoys its lowest unemployment rate since 1975, “the highest proportion of people in work since records began,” and historic lows of people unemployed and not seeking work. It’s labor participation rate stands at 75 percent.

Smith recently delivered remarks at the American Enterprise Institute to address the social reform that American leaders, like their British brethren, can implement to help reverse the unintended damage caused by welfare programs. These U.S. programs — now standing at 126 in total, 71 of which provide a cash or in-kind benefit — were created with the best of intentions. But they have ended up trapping people into indefinite dependency instead of providing a temporary safety net for people while they get back on their feet to earn their own success.

As Duncan explains, the “temporary” nature of welfare makes not just financial sense, but human sense.

Work is about more than just money.

Culturally and socially, work is the spine that runs through a stable society. Not only is it the best way to increase your earnings, but it provides purpose, responsibility, dignity. It offers role models for children, and it builds community spirit.

Conversely, an ever-growing body of research has shown that inactivity not only reduces your financial well-being, but is directly linked to poor mental health, substance abuse, and in the very worst cases, suicide. Fundamentally, as Benjamin Franklin once observed, ‘It is the working man who is the happy man … [and] the idle man who is the miserable man.’

According to Smith, the idle man is the kiss of death for society because “worklessness” hurts the individuals who should be earning their success alongside society at large. Smith quoted the Father of Economics, Adam Smith, saying:

No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.

Sadly, the U.S. government has taught people “learned helplessness.” It has allowed people to become so permanently dependent upon it for money, food stamps, and other financial assistance that it makes more sense for these dependents to stop pursuing work at all. This mindset bleeds into new generations of dependence and, as a result, the vicious cycle continues.

Of course, Smith carves out exceptions for individuals who need assistance, citing sickness, disability, and “times of desperate hardship” as examples of when the state should step in to help carry them through their struggle. Even then, he argues, assistance should be less about sustenance and more focused on the journey of helping shift from dependence to independence.

It is both expensive and unconservative to manage and maintain those at the bottom rather than give them the opportunity to take back control of their lives.

For all the changes that must happen for the United States to implement the proper laws and procedures — and adopt the advantageous mindset that enables individuals to prosper through the blessing of work, Smith remains hopeful.

With a new administration, the United States has now a golden opportunity to give welfare the reform it so urgently needs.

There is the potential to create a welfare system that recognizes with compassion the situations people find themselves in, but ensures fairness for the taxpayer.

One that is more conditional, less chaotic, more dynamic.

But, above all, one that is about life change, enabling people to transform themselves and their families.

As Springsteen sings, “We Take Care of Our Own.” But the ability to pursue our happiness is easier when families are able to take care of themselves.