How Work Requirement in Food Stamp Program Helped Reduce Poverty in Maine

TPOH has long advocated maintaining a safety net for those truly in need, but also supporting work as a means to build value in one’s lives and in the lives of others. Work provides meaning and purpose, despite those who wish to argue otherwise.

So it’s refreshing to read a strong rebuttal to a shocking claim that suggests proposed changes to the food stamp program will force people to hunt squirrels for food. Turns out such hyperbole doesn’t stand up to the evidence.

The Washington Post reported in a story last week that a Navy veteran was forced to catch, skin, and eat squirrels cooked on a flame nearby the tent where he lived in Augusta, Maine after the state tightened its work requirements for recipients of the social safety net. The newspaper than suggested that President Trump’s federal budget proposal mimics the Maine plan, and could jeopardize poor people.

But political commentator Marc Thiessen, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush, cleared up the Post’s misconceptions.

First of all, under federal law, work requirements only apply to able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs).  So if a person is truly disabled, he or she would not be subject to work requirements.

Second, the work requirements are not all that stringent. Able-bodied adults can received three months of food stamp (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP) benefits in a 36-month period, after which they have three options for fulfilling their work requirement:

1. Work a paying job for at least 20 hours per week

2. Participate in a federal or state vocational training program for at least 20 hours per week.

3. Perform 6 hours of community service per week.

This means that in order to be forced to hunt squirrels for food, you’d have to refuse not only to work, but also to participate in work training, or to volunteer for the equivalent of just one hour per day. If you are able enough to hunt and skin squirrels, you’re probably able enough to meet those minimal requirements.

Thiessen then explained that the state helps those who are bound to the work requirement with resumé building, job interview training, support coaching, and even providing volunteer opportunities.

As a result, Maine’s food stamp roles plummeted by 86 percent while its able-bodied adults experienced an average 114 percent increase in income!

Forbes magazine reported that people who relied on the program saw their average benefits drop 13 percent because they ended up needing less assistance.  The work requirement ended up reducing the cost of the food stamp program by $30-$40 million annually.

As Thiessen explains:

In other words, work requirements in Maine have been a huge success.  Far from hunting varmints, most people have found work. And – here’s the important part – work is what most people on food stamps really want. …

Thiessen explained that a similar case occurred in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and it was reported that while people in the program expressed that the EBT card is nice, they preferred a job. Implementing the work requirement took New York City from having one of the nation’s highest poverty rates to one of the lowest.

To claim that work requirements are somehow cruel is to deny individuals the opportunity to achieve something self-made, an outcome that satisfies an internal need for fulfillment, not just a need for a full belly.

Some oppose work requirements because they see them as a way to punish welfare recipients or deny them benefits. But work is not a punishment. Work is a blessing. And work requirements are a critical tool to help rescue our fellow Americans from the misery of idleness – so they can achieve meaning and happiness in their lives through the power of honest, productive work.

Paid Family Leave: Economical Conclusions From Three U.S. States

President Trump, with the encouragement of his daughter Ivanka, has been promoting paid family leave as a means to help families with income and work after the birth of a child or to care for a loved one who falls ill.

Democrats have long supported such plans, and Republicans are coming on board. That may surprise many who think paid leave is an unaffordable boondoggle, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it’s a boon not a boondoggle, and not just for families but for businesses that offer paid family leave.

Evidence of such claims are drawn from studies of paid family leave programs in three U.S. states — California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — that have already implemented such programs. Here are some of the conclusions:

  1. Paid leave raises the likelihood that a new mother will remain in the labor market, which can help boost her lifetime income and contributes to our economic productivity overall.
  2. Women who take parental leave are less likely to suffer from maternal depression and are more likely to  breastfeed— and do so for longer periods of time — outcomes that are beneficial for the lifetime health and development of the child.
  3. Paid leave encourages men to help more at home, freeing up time for women if they want to work, which boosts household income and spurs economic growth.
  4. Fathers who take time off work at and around childbirth are more likely to be involved in childcare later in the child’s life. Children whose fathers are more involved in their early years perform better on language and cognitive tests, and social development than those with fathers who are less involved.
  5. Paid leave has had a positive or neutral effect on profitability, according to employers in California and New Jersey.
  6. State paid leave programs have helped employers recruit and retain talent, lower turnover, and boost morale and worker productivity.
  7. Paid leave reduces the burden on government assistance in states, suggesting potential longer-term positive budgetary implications.
  8. Uneven availability of paid family leave in the private sector ends up disproportionately benefiting higher-income workers, while low-wage workers also often lack other forms of paid days off that higher-wage workers can use for family leave. Providing low-wage, low-skill workers time to care for their families encourages work.

OK. There must be downsides, right? There are some potential hazards. These are some:

  1. States looking to develop their own paid leave policies will have to build an administrative structure to create the system.
  2. Lawmakers will grow government rather than make cuts to other programs to pay for paid family leave.
  3. Employers dropping their paid leave programs for a federal program could become quite expensive if not offset.
  4. There is the potential for “time-off creep” and the costs associated with that. Paid leave programs are now only four-six weeks, but New York has already passed a law to make its program 12 weeks.

The United States is the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid family leave.

What do you think of implementing a universal system?

Read the entire blog series on the impact of paid family leave.

Want to Work? Then Don’t Wait For Universal Basic Income

I recently read an interesting series of memos that propose three possible futures for the U.S. economy. This suite of essays, published by the Knight Foundation, merit a read if you’re interested in innovation and techno-futurism.

Their most optimistic scenario includes a version of a “universal basic income,” a popular policy idea among academics. The UBI would replace most complicated, conditional welfare programs with a straight-up minimum income guarantee that everyone receives from the government simply for being alive. (Nice work if you can get it!)

The UBI is the rare idea that garners support from both liberal and conservative intellectuals. Progressives like the idea of a generous and unconditional benefit for anyone who needs it; conservatives like the idea of replacing messy bureaucracies with a much clearer and more concise policy.

Unfortunately, on this front, I am the skunk at the garden party. As I wrote in a drive-by Medium response to the Knight memo, simply conceding a “post-work” future and paying everyone a salary to breathe is a poor substitute for the tougher job of actually getting people back to work. As the memo rightly notes, there are huge costs to simply cutting work out of people’s lives, even if you mitigate the financial aspect.

You can read the Medium post for my favorite research on this, but here’s one sample. Running my own statistical analysis on some survey data, I have found that Americans who have a job and feel successful at it are more than twice as likely to say they’re “very happy” than people who don’t meet those conditions. Importantly, this holds up when you control for income. Put simply, having a reason to set our alarm each morning gives us a psychic benefit that goes way beyond a paycheck.

What’s the better, more meaningful solution? How about we try a radical new agenda for forming human capital that empowers more Americans to stay engaged in the economy, rather than making it less painful for them to drop out?

How Feeling Needed Will Improve the Next Four Years

The next four years will present new challenges in governance and new opportunities to get policy right. It’s my honor to lead an institution that stands for the universality of human dignity and the limitlessness of human potential, and fights for policy and culture to better reflect both these truths.

One Huge Question That Could Define the Next Four Years!

If you’re into public policy, you may want to be a little more fluent in the emerging policy issues that the new Trump administration has to tackle. For instance, what will be done for veterans care? How will schools improve performance for K-12 students? What exactly is a “border adjustment tax“?

But there’s also a much bigger picture we need to understand. Let’s be honest: It wasn’t a massive popular demand for a border adjustment that swept Trump into the White House. So what was it? Here’s my explanation:

America has gotten pretty good at helping struggling people, but pretty terrible at needing them. Our nation is rendering millions of people effectively superfluous. This violates human dignity. And now we are seeing the results.

Everything from ancient philosophy to survey data tell us that feeling necessary – feeling useful to others – is a crucial piece of a happy and satisfying human life. How do you think things are trending for working-class Americans on this particular score?

Today, compared to 50 years ago, three times as many men are completely outside the labor force – that is, neither gainfully employed nor even seeking work. This dystopic economic shift owes partially to the Great Recession, partially to irresponsible policies, partially to decaying social norms, and partially to longer-term structural changes outside of Washington’s control.

The problem is only compounded by atrophy in other institutions that provide alternate paths to neededness. Instead of staying strong and buffering against economic decay, these other factors – family stability, religious participation, community engagement – are also sliding downward. Meanwhile, though our Great Society-era safety net has helped make poverty and joblessness a bit less materially intolerable, it has not made these states any less soul-crushing or any more escapable.

Both liberals and conservatives need to retire the old mindset of finding more ways to help citizens. This does not mean doing nothing, however. Congress and the Trump administration must develop a new agenda, consonant with the truths of free enterprise, that is specifically designed to make forgotten Americans more needed.

Editor’s Note: Sign Up to Stay in Touch With Arthur. Arthur is launching a new feature essay early this year that will diagnose this problem of feeling useful and instantiate an agenda with specific policy ideas to make more people needed. Updates will also be found at

For more information on the impact of being needed, enjoy this background piece on the subject.

A Catholic and a Buddhist Walk Into a Think Tank …

If the Dalai Lama were hanging around Washington, D.C., with the head of a free-market think tank, and the two were strategizing on how to build an embarrassment of riches, would you wonder what has become of the world?

If you would, you probably didn’t know that the Tibetan Buddhist leader is hanging out with Arthur Brooks, a man who has described himself as the most Buddhist Catholic he knows. And you probably didn’t know that the two are soulmates of a sort, in a quest to refocus Washington on increasing personal empowerment and helping people achieve their higher calling.

Indeed, Brooks and the Dalai Lama recently penned a New York Times essay in which they note their common goal.

What unites the two of us in friendship and collaboration is not shared politics or the same religion. It is something simpler: a shared belief in compassion, in human dignity, in the intrinsic usefulness of every person to contribute positively for a better and more meaningful world.

That sounds friendly, right? But what does it mean? America is living proof that financial wealth doesn’t solve all our problems. In fact, many problems are not wealth-related at all. All over the world, poverty has been reduced and billions of people now have a roof over their heads and regular meals.

Wealth disparity is not really the issue either. As the Dalai Lama points out, the billionaire’s and the pauper’s stomachs can only extend the same amount. The rich man and the poor man both have 10 fingers, whether they wear 20 rings or no rings at all.

As people all over the world become more secure and financially stable, Western society is facing an obvious malaise. The United States is looking at a decline in its labor force participation rate, and working-age men are dropping out of the workforce all over Western societies. What is the root of this problem?

Pain and indignation are sweeping through prosperous countries. The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies. …

Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.

In other words, the authors suggest that the pillar of the happiest life is wealth, but not wealth defined as durable goods and bank accounts, but a sense of creating value and a positive contribution.

Much research on the topic shows that people who feel they have purpose live longer and healthier lives. If they can earn their own way, create something, and serve others, they have the greatest ability to feel purposeful. The lack of a sense of purpose has created a deep anxiety and its attendant scourges, both personally and for society at large.

Being ‘needed’ does not entail selfish pride or unhealthy attachment to the worldly esteem of others. Rather, it consists of a natural human hunger to serve our fellow men and women. As the 13th-century Buddhist sages taught, ‘If one lights a fire for others, it will also brighten one’s own way.’

In a society fraught with frenetic energy like that of the United States, defining purpose can be a mighty salve to our sense of discontent. Yes, having the financial ability to relieve day-to-day worries is always an issue, but the degree to which one contributes is the real means to reduce that stress.

Personal contribution begets money, not the other way around. And that is the very purpose of a free enterprise system. It’s not to create billionaires. It is to enable purpose.

So can our focus be redirected toward purpose and meaning? Yes, but it starts with leaders who acknowledge the changes that are need to enable all of us to excel.

Leaders need to recognize that a compassionate society must create a wealth of opportunities for meaningful work, so that everyone who is capable of contributing can do so. A compassionate society must provide children with education and training that enriches their lives, both with greater ethical understanding and with practical skills that can lead to economic security and inner peace. A compassionate society must protect the vulnerable while ensuring that these policies do not trap people in misery and dependence.

Read The New York Times article.

NILFs, They Are Not What You Think: Men Without Work

The number of men age 25-54 not in the labor force (NILFs, get it?) has reached a shockingly high figure — about 7 million, or about the same percentage as at the end of the Depression in 1940. This number doesn’t even include men who are in prison, students, or stay-at-home dads.


Demographer Nick Eberstadt, who authored the new book, Men Without Work, says that one in six working-age men in America are jobless, and if the trend continues, that number will go to one in five jobless men in America in a generation.

“These detached men live and walk among us, though without productive economic purpose — as they endure an overlooked, modern-day Depression,” Eberstadt says.

This increase in male NILFs is a reality across the developed world, but the increase is especially high in the United States. Trying to come up with an explanation why has become something of a parlor game for economists and social scientists. Among some of the explanations — trade sending jobs away, technology automating jobs, federal benefits that make work less desirable or necessary, even video games, which have driven a rise in couch potatoes.

Eberstadt argues that the problem stems not from the number of men in prison, but from the number of men who have previously been in prison. About 12 percent of the adult male civilian population currently not in jail has been convicted of a felony.

A single variable — having a criminal record — is a key missing piece in explaining why work rates and LFPRs [labor-force participation rates] have collapsed much more dramatically in America than other affluent Western societies over the past two generations. This single variable also helps explain why the collapse has been so much greater for American men than women and why it has been so much more dramatic for African American men and men with low educational attainment than for other prime-age men in the United States.

Eberstadt notes that African-American men are twice as likely to constitute this American “un-worker” than whites or Latinos, which is not surprising since African-Americans make up about 40 percent of the prison population even though they are only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population. That compares to whites who are 64 percent of the U.S. population, but 39 percent of the prison population, and Latinos who are 16 percent of the U.S. population, but 19 percent of the prison population.

Eberstadt offers some solutions to the problem. He notes that former prisoners have paid their debt to society so need to be welcomed back into society. He calls it a “shameful reflection of our ignorance” that we have marginalized ex-prisoners, much less failed to stop the triggers that lead people to commit the offenses that land them in prison in the first place.

He notes that welfare reform worked in the 1990s to get single mothers into the workforce, and that disability insurance programs should be predicated on a “work first” incentive rather than the current system, which spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year to encourage men to sit on the sidelines.

Revitalizing American business, and avoiding a trade war, will also keep employment rates from further declining, he says, not to mention public policies that make marriage a more attractive option since married men with kids are much more likely to be in the workforce than unmarried, childless men.

Order the book, Men Without Work.

Major Life Decisions: How Much Influence Does a Coin Toss Have?

Steven Levitt, a well-known economist of “Freakonomics” fame, has a new paper on a topic that we can all relate to: How do people make big, pivotal life decisions? And how can we evaluate whether we make good ones?

When I stop and think about it, the relative scarcity of a robust literature on this topic is surprising. What could be a more pressing or pertinent subject? But — among other difficulties — it is incredibly difficult to create a controlled environment with the kind of randomization that you need for rock-solid results.

Let me explain. To try and measure whether some small behavior makes people happier, researchers could simply randomly assign participants into “Group 1” and “Group 2” and impose different conditions on each. This ensures that people with preexisting differences aren’t self-selecting into different groups and polluting the direct causal link that you’re trying to measure.

This approach — create a controlled environment, randomly divide your participants into “treatment” and “control” groups, and then measure how they fare — works great for studying things like new medications. But not so much for studying major life decisions: whether to get married, what kind of person to marry, and whether to move across the country for a new job. It turns out people aren’t willing to surrender those decisions to a social scientist in the name of advancing science. Weird, I know.

That’s where this study gets creative. Levitt did the best he could to “randomize” decisions by looking at the impact of a coin toss on people’s likelihood of making certain decisions. First, he recruited more than 10,000 volunteers. Each one took a survey that asked about a big decision they were facing. Then came the interesting part: Levitt’s website presented participants with a coin flip that “told” them which choice to make. After the experiment, Levitt followed up with the recruits to see what they decided and how happy they were.

Obviously, participants weren’t bound to follow through and obey the virtual coin. So the first question the study examined was: How much does a virtual coin flip impact which choice people end up making? And as funny as it seems, it turned out that the coin flip influenced participants’ decision making a lot. Taking account of a range of other factors, Levitt finds participants who got heads were about 25 percent more likely to make the change they were considering. And these weren’t insignificant decisions. Some of the changes the participants were mulling included quitting their job or separating from their spouse.

Equally interesting, the people who went ahead and made the change they were considering usually wound up happier as a result. Among the participants who were considering “important” decisions, those who decided to make a change later reported being a full point happier (on a 1–10 scale) than those who stuck with the status quo. Maybe there’s a lesson here: If you find a potential decision sufficiently compelling that you can’t get it off your mind, you should probably just pull the trigger. (Check out my Valentine’s Day column from 2015, “Taking Risks in Love,” for one practical application of this principle.)

The potential lesson here is intriguing. The results suggest that people leave a chunk of potential happiness untapped simply by tethering themselves to the status quo. Even a randomized virtual signal from a stranger in academia was enough to give people a little momentum and push them toward improving their lives.

Official Poverty Rate Declines in 2015. Can Washington Do More?

Over the last two weeks, important new reports were released with good news for poverty fighters across the country: the official poverty rate dropped from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent in 2015, and both food insecurity and very low food security significantly declined as well.

The fact that we are just now seeing progress, as caseloads for major assistance programs decrease, illustrates that a strengthening economy that gets more Americans working is the most essential ingredient for fighting poverty.

Still, a larger share of Americans remain poor than before the recession started in 2007, even when factoring in all non-cash and tax-based government transfers. This means turning to strategies than can further push down the poverty level.

That’s where Angela Rachidi comes in. Rachidi studies the effects of public policy and existing support programs on low-income families, and makes a convincing case that our focus throughout policy should be on getting more Americans working.

A small fraction of prime-working age people in poverty work full-time, full-year, which means that for most, the lack of a full-time job, not low wages, seems to be the primary driver of poverty.

In a study Rachidi conducted over the summer, she found that:

The vast majority of working-age adults in poverty, whether measured by the official rate or the supplemental rate, lack full-time work, and more than 60 percent in official poverty did not work for pay at all in 2014. In addition, the majority of children in official poverty were in a family without a full-time worker, and 31.3 percent were in a family with no working adult at all. …

As Rachidi explains, most working-age adults in poverty are not working for reasons unrelated to searching for work. They have to do with health issues and home and family responsibilities. In other words, Americans in poverty are frequently not able to look for work or take a job when one is offered. They are not actually resistant to doing work. Addressing those barriers could do more to pull those sitting on the sidelines back into the labor market. But government solutions to reducing poverty are addressing the wrong problem.

Antipoverty policies—such as minimum wage increases, wage subsidies, increasing job availability (including subsidized jobs), and workforce development efforts like education and training—often focus on the working poor or on those actively searching for work. Efforts like these are not well-suited to those who are not even looking for work.

From disability programs to child care assistance to apprenticeship programs, a host of changes could be made to increase employment among low-income Americans, Rachidi argues. Many of these can occur on the state level, where much of federal aid is doled out to be distributed as statewide officials see fit. This is useful in the sense that regional problems don’t need a top-down diktat from Washington.

Check out Angela Rachidi’s suggestions on how to make work more attractive to Americans.

At the same time Rachidi focuses on solutions to address the reasons people are in poverty, Edward Conard argues in his new book, “The Upside of Inequality: How Good Intentions Undermine the Middle Class,” that Americans should be wary of relying on increased income redistribution to help the lower and middle classes move up.

He dismantles major myths about income inequality’s impact on the middle and working classes, including the following:

The myth that the rich get richer by making the poor poorer. No other high-wage economy has done more to help the world’s poor than the US economy. Regardless, advocates of redistribution press on. Rising income inequality is actually the byproduct of an economy that has deployed its talent and wealth more effectively than that of other economies — and not of the rich stealing from the middle and working classes.

The myth that incentives don’t matter. In an innovation-driven economy, there are large and compounding costs to dulling incentives for entrepreneurial risk-taking. As payoffs for success have risen, entrepreneurial risk-taking has accelerated US growth relative to other high-wage economies with more equally distributed incomes. Because of this growth, today, median US household incomes are 15 to 30 percent higher than those in Germany, France, and Japan.

The myth that mobility has declined. If the success of America’s 1 percent comes at the expense of the middle and working classes, we should see mobility declining. Yet, even with significant immigration, there is little evidence that mobility has declined or that mobility in Scandinavia, the supposed paradise of redistribution, is better than in the United States.

The myth that the success of the 1 percent hurts the middle class. Since the financial crisis, accusations that crony capitalism and the success of the 1 percent slow middle- and working-class income growth have only grown louder. The incomes of the very top of the 1 percent have soared, and the growth of middle-class and working-class incomes has remained slow. Many insist that this gap has increased because the wealthy are rigging a zero-sum game to take what rightly belongs to others. Conard addresses these accusations and explains how income redistribution is what hurts the middle and working classes.

Conard says income inequality is not a bad thing in and of itself. It drives competition and entrepreneurial risk-taking. Likewise, a heavy reliance on redistributing the income of those entrepreneurs undercuts those who are willing to invest in training and hiring lesser-skilled workers.

At the same time, Conard argues, reducing regulatory rules that create instability in the banking sector would encourage risk-averse institutions to reengage, compounding and growing the economy at a faster rate.

Labor Day Survey: Americans’ Opinions on the Work Environment

People like their jobs, and it’s not just because they have one.

As we celebrate Labor Day, polls on the American workforce show a great deal of satisfaction among workers for the jobs they have. This is no surprise. People have been giving them same answer for decades.

There has been little change in the responses since survey organizations started measuring them regularly in the 1970s. Eighty-six percent of employed people said they were completely or somewhat satisfied with their jobs, according to Gallup’s latest. (A decade ago, the response was identical.) Nearly half in the survey, 44 percent, reported that they were “completely satisfied.” Only 13 percent said they were somewhat or completely dissatisfied with their jobs. Across all income breaks, at least 70 percent say they are somewhat or completely satisfied with their jobs. Results from the National Opinion Research Center on satisfaction with work have also been positive and stable over time.

And it’s not just that people are satisfied with the work they have. They are also increasingly optimistic about the work they could possibly get.

In 1998, when the University of Connecticut/Rutgers first asked if it was a good time or a bad time to find a quality job, 69 percent said it was a good time, a reflection of the country’s strong economy. Following the 2008 crash, this response fell to an all-time low of 8 percent in November 2009 and again in November 2011. Since then, confidence in finding a quality job has continued to improve. In Gallup’s August 2016 survey, 39 percent gave that response.

Why is satisfaction so persistently strong? There are probably many reasons, but jumping out is the notion of “earned success.” In other words, having a sense of purpose gives people meaning in their lives.  And put yet another way:

Earned success means defining your future as you see fit and achieving that success on the basis of merit and hard work. It allows you to measure your life’s “profit” however you want, be it in money, making beautiful music, or helping people learn English. Earned success is at the root of American exceptionalism.

Read more about the Public Opinion Study on the State of the American Worker 2016

Pandhandling and Homelessness: One Mayor Who Looked the Problem in the Face and Helped

TPOH has long repeated the sentiment that the least among us must be treated like assets to be developed, not liabilities to be managed, so it’s heartening to see that the mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., is embodying the effort to show people who are “at their lowest that they have real value.”

The Washington Post reports that Mayor Richard Berry decided to test the “Will Work for …” signs held by homeless panhandlers by actually starting a program to give work for hourly pay, lunch, and a shelter bed. Turns out many of the folks holding up the signs are willing to jump on the offer of a job. The program is so successful, it’s now slated for growth.

Next month will be the first anniversary of Albuquerque’s There’s a Better Way program, which hires panhandlers for day jobs beautifying the city. In partnership with a local nonprofit that serves the homeless population, a van is dispatched around the city to pick up panhandlers who are interested in working. …

In less than a year since its start, the program has given out 932 jobs clearing 69,601 pounds of litter and weeds from 196 city blocks. And more than 100 people have been connected to permanent employment. …

The There’s a Better Way van employs about 10 workers a day but could easily take more. When the van fills, people have begged to get a spot next time, she said. That’s why the city has increased funding for the program to expand it from two to four days a week. And it inspired St. Martin’s to start its own day labor program, connecting the jobless to employers in the area who could offer side jobs.

As the Post reports, panhandling is objectionable to residents in many cities. Very few people enjoy walking down the sidewalk and having a group of unkempt men holding out their hands or smelling the foul odor of urine at the crosswalk.

But if those scenarios are uncomfortable for most, imagine what it feels like for the person on the other side of that equation.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports that municipal laws prohibiting panhandling extend beyond begging for money. “Homeless people are being criminally punished for being in public even when they have no other alternatives.”

What’s an alternative? Well, for people without family or friends as resources, in cities where the number of homeless exceed the number of emergency shelter beds or affordable housing units, hospitals and jails serve as costly temporary “housing” options for homeless “criminals.”

There are more innovative ways to go about it, however.

In its 2013 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness, the Utah Housing and Community Development Division reported that the annual cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16,670, while providing an apartment and a social worker cost only $11,000.

A 2013 analysis by the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research of the Heading Home Initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico showed that, by providing housing, the city reduced spending on homelessness-related jail costs by 64%.

Those are just some of the findings in the law center’s report. It also points out that making criminals of homeless people only hinders their chance for getting jobs or finding housing, and it creates financial penalties they cannot pay.

So if communities really want to help end homelessness, one way to start would be to find innovative solutions, like the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which helped 235 communities “identify all of their homeless neighbors by name; track and measure local housing placement progress; and adopt methods of housing homeless people more quickly, using process improvements.”

The result? 101,628 people and families, including 31,171 homeless veterans, found housing in under four years.

The solutions are there if we look the problem in the face. That’s what Albuquerque’s mayor proved willing to do.

Read more about Mayor Berry’s work program for panhandlers.

Here’s a video by the city about the program.

3 Lessons on Work to Create Meaning in Your Life

Sure, pretty much everyone wants a career. It makes it a lot easier to plan your weekends that way. But having a career, or even a job, doesn’t mean that you are going to create meaning in your life. Indeed, if you hate what you do, your life is going to feel meaningless, and your likelihood of happiness takes a big tumble down the odds maker’s charts.

So how do you create meaning in your life? Ultimately, by having a vocation, a reason for doing what you do. Whether you’re a ditch digger or a high-powered executive, choosing work that feels fulfilling brings a much greater sense of happiness.

Three lessons on work can help you determine whether your day-to-day work is fulfilling to you, and hopefully help you decide whether you are living with meaning or need to pursue your happiness through work in another way.

Lesson #1: Focus on serving others

The greatest engine of misery in our society is a sense of social and economic superfluousness. Feeling like you’re needed is integral to feeling successful.  The sense of insecurity many in America feel today is contributing to the anger on display in U.S. politics.

Have a miserable colleague at work? Odds are the problem isn’t just skill mismatch or lack of drive. Most likely, they don’t feel really necessary. Don’t believe it? Reflect on your own experience. Remember that time you weren’t being used enough on the project at work? Didn’t feel good, did it?

We’re designed to serve others, we are wired to want to feel useful, and a sense of superfluousness is a social and psychological cancer.

At the same time, most public policy ideas aimed at helping the job market fail to unleash that sense of utility — and the commensurate human flourishing that goes with it — because the policies are created through a managerial mindset, treating lower income earners as data points to be managed and raised.

To promote human happiness, public policy and our politics must treat every human as a precious asset. Our organizing principle must be that everyone needs to be needed. And even if we don’t realize it, almost anyone with a job is needed and relied on. There are people counting on each of us. We should view every day as an opportunity to serve them.

Lesson #2: Ask why you do what you do

When people first meet, they often ask, “What do you do?” But rarely do you hear, “Why do you do it?” And that second question is important to consider.

Saint Thomas Aquinas asks in his Summa Theologica why people are happy or unhappy? He poses the question of whether happiness is found in such things as wealth, honor, fame, glory, power, the physical body, pleasure, the soul, or objects.

“Naught can lull man’s will save the universal good,” Aquinas contends.

What does that mean? The upshot is that miserable people chase money, power, pleasure, and fame. That’s no surprise, it’s a natural thing to do. It’s much easier to pass on your genetic material if you accumulate these things. But pushing you to pass on your genetic material is not coincident with you leading a happy life. The key to happiness isn’t being a ripe specimen in the eyes of Darwin. Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy.

Understanding the real moral purpose that lies behind your choices and keeping it square in your sights is a much more viable route to happiness. The diagnostic tool is to ask yourself: Why am I doing this thing? We all want money. But is it primarily for money? Is it primarily for power? Is it primarily for fame? Or is it because I feel a sense of purpose?

Lesson #3: Don’t invest everything in work

The social science comes down pretty clear on this one. Four inputs of happiness are in our control: faith, family, community, and work. Many people might think they have all four covered. Indeed, they might. The key question is this: When was the last time you checked your life portfolio for balance among those four inputs? It’s easy to find ourselves drifting, especially at different phases of the life cycle. But this is a big trap. Just like it takes diversification to weather economic shifts, so too can big life events upend an unbalanced happiness portfolio. Investing all your time and thoughts into work is like going long on Greek bonds. No one wants to be that guy.

— modified from the work of Arthur C. Brooks

Hey, Older Workers: Raise Your Hand If Too Much Work Makes You Dumber

A study cited by the BBC claims that too much work makes you dumber. That’s right, working too many hours after a certain age could be bad for our brains … maybe.

If you’re over 40, working more than 25 hours of work a week could be impairing your intelligence, according to a study released in February by researchers for the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research in Australia. The team conducted reading, pattern and memory tests in more than 6,000 workers aged over 40, to see how the number of hours worked each week affects a person’s cognitive ability.

Working 25 hours a week (part time or three days a week) was the optimum amount of time spent working a week for cognitive functioning, while working less than that was detrimental to the agility of the brain for both men and women, the study found.

Oh, if only everyone could use such excuses to take the afternoon off.

So why is 40 the magic number?

According to (lead researcher Colin) McKenzie, our ‘fluid intelligence,’ which is how well we process information, starts declining around the age of 20 and ‘crystallized intelligence,’ or the ability to use skills, knowledge and experience starts decreasing after 30 years of age. McKenzie said that by age 40, most people perform less well at memory tests, pattern recognition and mental agility exercises.

Of course, while it’s unlikely a person at 40 years of age is going to call it a day during the peak of his or her career and head to part-time service, take heart — lower performance over 40 is not an across-the-board truth. Getting the right amount of sleep, mixing up the routine, and enjoying the type of work you do are all elements that can prolong the ability to perform at optimal levels.


The Working Poor: When a Job is a Chore

Too few poor Americans work. That may seem obvious, but maybe the reason is not.

The most common explanations given by nonworking, poor adults  for why they aren’t employed are family and home responsibilities and disability and illness, not inability to find a job.

The full-time working poor make up only 17 percent of the 46.7 million Americans in poverty in 2014. Meantime, most working-age adults in poverty — 61.7 percent — did not work at all in 2014.

Work is a central part of the American dream. Steady employment supplies income to households, provides opportunities to move up the income ladder, and minimizes the risk of being in poverty. Only 3 percent of adults who work full-time, year-round live in poverty.

More importantly, work is often a source of dignity and purpose and is an important way in which everyone can contribute to society.

While working for pay is something that enables families to thrive and fosters a sense of pride, labor economist Angela Rachidi asserted that “labor force participation rates among prime-age workers have declined over the past two decades, suggesting that America is facing a work problem.”

If not working is a choice, then it may be of little concern to public policy. But when a lack of employment leads to poverty, it raises important questions about the role for government. In many ways, government can make poverty less painful through income transfers, but the important question is whether government can encourage those who are not employed to work and provide for themselves. …

Notably, fewer than 10 percent of nonworkers in poverty reported inability to find work as their reason for not working. This suggests that current economic and workforce development policies, which primarily focus on people already working or looking for work, have limitations. With over 60 percent of poor working-age people not working at all, public policies aimed at increasing work may have stronger effects than these other policies.”

Rachidi looked at people in poverty as described by the federal government’s definition as well as the supplemental poverty measure, which includes government benefits in determining a poor person’s income.

“Ultimately,” she wrote, “the results related to work and nonwork for people in poverty according to both measures were similar, and the conclusions were the same.”

Rachidi suggested that anti-poverty efforts may have to focus on the larger variables that drive people from the workplace, including health issues and family responsibilities, as well as disincentives to work, like those seen in disability insurance programs, which TPOH has previously noted.

Otherwise, Rachidi said, “we can either accept the status quo, which would mean leaving millions of Americans in poverty, or continue funding large government programs that transfer income from working taxpayers to the nonworking poor.”

Neither of these seems like a good option.

Mississippi Barriers to Opportunity Broken By Entrepreneurial Hair Braider

Melony Armstrong did not grow up financially disadvantaged, She didn’t suffer an accident that left her disabled. She didn’t make any poor decisions that ended her up in the criminal justice system.Hair-braider Melony Armstrong

An African-American girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s, Armstrong went to college and had a successful career in the field of psychology. She was a model for living the American dream.

But when she decided to strike out on her own, Armstrong confronted enormous, institutional barriers to opportunity that she never expected — state and municipal bureaucracy so entrenched that it became nearly impossible for her to open and own a small business.

The barrier was “a direct result of how our state and local governments regulate what people do for work and how those barriers slam the door to opportunity for many people in  a very real way,” she told an audience in Washington, D.C., attending an AEI Vision Talk.

Armstrong, who grew up having her mother and grandmother braid her hair every weekend, part of a rich cultural heritage that dates back 3,000 years, wanted to become a professional hair braider and took the logical course of action in that direction — training under a master braider and practicing for six months on a mannequin.

“I dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur and opening and running my own hair braiding business. The dream got my adrenaline pumping,” she said.

But when she finally felt ready to employ her new talents, the nightmare began. Armstrong found that the state Board of Cosmetology required that anyone who wanted to become a natural hair braider had to take 1,500 hours of cosmetology school and had to pay the state more than $10,000 for the license.

The requirements were “going to all be in an area that literally had nothing to do with hair braiding.”

To obtain a license to teach hair braiding, part of Armstrong’s long-term business plan, would require an additional 3,200 hours of classes.

“I could have become licensed in all of the following occupations in Mississippi. Here we go: emergency medical technician-basic, emergency medical technician-paramedic, ambulance driver, police officer, firefighter, real estate appraiser, and hunting education instructor,” she said. “Not just one of those occupations, but all of those occupations, I could have (done) them all and still had 600 hours left over.”

Working her way through the labyrinth of state government, Armstrong learned that the state Board of Cosmetology, which made up the licensing requirements and granted the licenses, was comprised of practicing cosmetologists.

“What this meant for cosmetology schools is that cosmetology schools would be guaranteed students, right? Once they were guaranteed students, then basically these students became captive customers, and so anyone wanting to do this, there was no way that you could get around it. You had to go to a cosmetology school, you had to take the training, and you had to pay for the training in order to become licensed.”

Armstong said she had to make a decision: either give up on her dreams or fight the status quo. “I decided to fight back.”

Getting wind of Armstrong’s predicament, the Institute for Justice took up her cause and filed a lawsuit on her behalf. This meant weekly, and sometimes thrice-weekly trips to Jackson, the state capital, which is seven hours round-trip from her hometown of Tupelo.

Years later and facing down some incredible odds, including trying to explain hair-braiding techniques to male lawmakers and being challenged at one point about whether hair braiding could raise the risk of HIV, which it cannot, the state legislature overturned the elaborate requirements, and the governor signed the new law. Now, the only requirements for hair braiders in Mississippi is to pay a fee, register with the state board of health, and abide by basic health and sanitation guidelines.

That was in 2005. Today, over 3,000 people are registered hair braiders in Mississippi, and Armstrong has taught hundreds of individuals how to braid hair through her school, Armstrong Academy. She has also opened up Melony Armstrong Coaching and Consulting.

“There only needed to be one tweak in the law, and that one tweak in the law has affected thousands of women in Mississippi,” she said, adding that regulatory hurdles have also been eased in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and Utah as a result of the change in Mississippi.

So what is the lesson that Armstrong shares from her experience?

“I think we need to take a serious look at the regulatory walls that are barring entrepreneurs from making an honest living. … We owe it to our citizens to pay attention to these laws that do nothing but keep entrepreneurs out,” she said. “America was built on the backs of entrepreneurs. I think many people would agree that we need entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs made America great, and if we could do it in Mississippi, we can do it across the nation.”

The Talent Drain: Disincentives in The Federal Disability Program

On Jan. 18, 1979, Mike Zelley was heading home after a business meeting to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife. He was driving his car in the early dark, and turned onto a highway ramp. His car hit a patch of black ice and slid toward the guard rail. It being Detroit in the dead of winter, the plow trucks had pushed the snow out of the road and up against the rails, essentially forming a ski ramp. Zelley’s car flew up the snow ramp, 40 feet into the air, and down over the embankment onto its front end.

Zelley’s neck was broken. He was paralyzed.Mike Zelley 1080

Despite life-saving measures, he was to live the rest of his life as a paraplegic. He thought his life was over.

“Then something miraculous happened, something that changed my life,” Zelley told an audience in Washington, D.C. A friend of his brother, who was living life in a wheelchair, mentioned that he was a successful stockbroker. Zelley had an epiphany.

“If he can have a job and raise a family and have a career, and make money, and if he can live independently, if he can do all that, I can do that,” Zelley said he realized. “That peer support was a direct change in my life, right then.”

Since then, Zelley has been paying it forward. After returning to his successful business following rehab, he went on to launch the Disability Network, a consumer-driven, private nonprofit serving 6,000 individuals with disabilities based in Flint, Mich.

But paying it forward has been more difficult than he anticipated, in part because of the barriers created by a federal assistance program that ends up trapping people with disabilities rather than helping them return to their once-productive lifestyles.

SSDI, which is paid out through Medicare, provides a monthly cash benefit to disabled individuals to help them defray costs associated with their disability, like the costs of buying pedal controls for a van or new wheels for a wheelchair, or other household accommodations that help disabled people live as close to an independent life as they can.

But if a disabled person makes more than the allotted cash benefit each month, federal policy views that individual’s employment as “sustainable gainful activity” — wage replacement — and cuts off SSDI.

“It’s a spider trap,” said Zelley noting that $1,000 a month in income is below the poverty level.

And the web is getting larger. Fifty-four million Americans have a disability. In Michigan alone, 500,000 working-age people with disabilities are not employed despite 43 percent of them having a college degree.

In all, only one half of 1 percent of people on disability go back to work after becoming disabled. That’s a monumental talent drain considering 85 percent of disabled people acquire their disability during their lifetime, they are not born disabled. That means a lot of work experience, education, and other abilities is left on the table, displaced from the workforce.

“What is wrong with this picture? Why are we keeping people? Why are we trapping them?” Zelley asked.

“What a tragic waste of talent and skills,” he said, noting that the private workforce could also do more to encourage employment. “An accommodation is something that we all need (whether disabled or not). It’s not just good for business, it makes (all of us) more effective and productive.”

“My hope today is that you will see the importance of using all the talent that we have that is sitting on the sidelines. I am not my disability. … People are not their disability.”

As for Zelley, despite many prayers that he be able to walk again, he cannot. But he hasn’t lost his sense of humor about it.

Remembering once during Catholic services, when everyone stood for the gospel, he shifted his weight in his chair — something disabled people have to do to prevent pressure sores. The movement prompted the choir director to shout, “Holy Jesus, he’s going to walk.”

He won’t, but he said he wants to get more disabled “out of the spectator stands, off the bleachers, on the bench, beginning training, into the game.”

Mississippi Hair Braider Challenges the Status Quo … And Wins

Melony Armstrong just wanted to set up a hair-braiding business in her hometown. Government got in the way.

Regulatory requirements demanded that the Mississippi hair braider take 1,500 hours of cosmetology classes and pay the state $10,000 for a license.

“My dream quickly began to turn into a nightmare,” Armstrong recently told an audience in Washington, D.C., about confronting the excessive requirements.

The rules didn’t sit right with Armstrong, but she didn’t walk away from her dream. She decided to challenge a status quo which had forced her to jump through hoops to comply with coursework that had nothing to do with her career choice as well as to pay for certification she wouldn’t need in order to teach her craft to others.

She told her story during a recent AEI Vision Talks, part of a series of lectures by top scholars, political leaders, and policy-makers inside the Beltway as well as business owners, practitioners, and influencers around the nation. The lectures offer fresh perspectives on key areas of public debate, and relate stories about overcoming barriers to success despite setbacks, often caused by overzealous policy.

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Because of Armstrong’s persistence, the state changed its laws. Hair braiders now pay a $25 registration fee with the state’s Board of Health, are required to post basic health and sanitation guidelines at their business, and must take a self-test on those guidelines.

“I’m just one hair braider in Tupelo, Mississippi who just happened to make one simple change in the law. There only needed to be one tweak in the law, and that one tweak in the law has affected thousands of women in Mississippi,” she said.

Armstrong now employs 25 people and has trained more than 125 people how to braid hair.

Watch her tell her story.

How an Ex-Con Found His Self-Worth and Paid It Forward

Every once in a while, the security we feel is shattered by a hard truth, or an interaction with someone who takes us out of our comfort zone for better or worse. Bryan Kelley is one of those people.

Sentenced to life in prison for murdering a man in a drug deal gone bad, Kelley was released after 22 years. Why?

Could be what he discovered behind bars — a path to redemption and an opportunity not only for his own rehabilitation and recognition of self-worth, but also the ability to help numerous others as well.

Kelley took the lessons of self-actualization that he learned during his long days and nights incarcerated and figured out a way to implement them, becoming a leader in an entrepreneurship program that helps ex-offenders successfully re-enter society.  The Prison Entrepreneurship Program combines a rigorous classroom curriculum, one-on-one immersion training, and a web of real-world resources to deliver results that not only improve communities where felons return, but create healthy, productive, and transformative changes that enable these ex-cons to realize their self-value and live their accountability to others.

Kelley recently came to Washington, D.C., to tell his story for the AEI Vision Talks, a series of lectures by top scholars, political leaders, and policy-makers inside the Beltway as well as business owners, practitioners, and influencers around the nation. These lectures offer fresh perspectives on key areas of public debate and policy.

The discussions focus on practical solutions, based on real-life experiences. For Kelley, he has experiences that many people don’t wish on their enemies. It’s enough to make you shift in your seat when you’re an audience member at his lectures. But in searching for actionable solutions, Kelley found answers that turned around what could have been a meaningless life in prison into a positive impact that touches families of ex-prisoners, area businesses, and the larger community.

Watch Bryan Kelley’s Vision Talk and see if he can teach you anything. At the very least, it will make you look at life a little differently, or perhaps count your blessings.

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The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life