Published May 01, 2012
My neighbor left his supermarket job and now gets a regular government check. In other words, he quit the work force and now feeds from the public trough.
He is healthy, and knows I do not approve of his sloth.
I wonder if my disdain for this scoundrel is fair or shared. When did it become okay for Americans not to work? Recently, Charles Murray, author of "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010," wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
“It must once again be taken for granted that a male in the prime of life who isn't even looking for work is behaving badly. There can be exceptions for those who are genuinely unable to work or are house husbands. But reasonably healthy working-age males who aren't working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums.”
The slowly declining national unemployment rate typically cited (now at 8.2 percent) understates the true number of unemployed Americans because it only includes those actively looking for work in the past four weeks and not those who have left the work force.
The “official” unemployment rate that measures adults who have left the workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics U-6) is 14.8 percent. Even this probably underestimates things, because it does not include those who never entered the workforce or those who failed to seek unemployment benefits after leaving the workforce.
Whatever the true number of unemployed able-bodied Americans, it is much larger than it should be. These people are straining our economy and our collective ability to support them.
Part of the problem is that well-meaning laws encourage workers to look for a government check rather than a job. Although the 1996 reform of welfare capped the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefit to five years, the program still incentivizes many teenagers to become unwed young mothers and fathers to disappear.
The Social Security Disability Insurance program, which paid out $130 billion in benefits to 10.6 million Americans in 2011, uses 1950s medical standards for manufacturing jobs to determine a worker’s disability. Sadly, when a region loses jobs, disability applications rise –suggesting that many Americans are using disability benefit when they are employable.
As Murray, also a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, writes in his recent book, Coming Apart: “(O)nce, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in the community... (N)ow it doesn't.” This perfectly captures our cultural shift.
One problem is that our legal benefits, intended to help the truly needy, also encourage the able bodied to play the system.
Our parents’ generation believed in hard work as an ethical mandate. Too many in our generation have shifted to a concept that because something is “legal” it is ethical.
In fact, this view has infected our leadership at the highest level. Many of our leaders celebrate and seemingly encourage the able-bodied to get maximum benefits. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently lauded the increase in the number of people on food stamps under President Obama as a “badge of honor.”
Remarkably, Pelosi outdid this ethically barren statement with her March 22 comments celebrating “ObamaCare” as allowing anyone to quit their job and pursue their passion. Calling this a “liberation,” she said, “You want to be a photographer or a writer or a musician, whatever – an artist, you want to be self-employed, if you want to start a business, you want to change jobs, you no longer are prohibited from doing that because you can’t have access to health care…”
And despite speeches in 2008 from candidate Obama implying that Americans should take responsibility for their fate, his presidency has been bereft of a moral call for self-reliance, sacrifice or hard work.
In fact, he is now campaigning by threatening that if the Republicans win, Americans will have to become self-reliant.
In late 2011, President Obama paraded some examples of Americans fending for themselves and declared: “That's not the America I believe in. It's not the America you believe in.”
It’s just not Democrats – the Republicans have been complicit, too: they have yet to take a principled stand.
In fact, Republicans have agreed repeatedly to “temporary” extensions of unemployment benefits. More, they blithely oppose any tax increases, even loophole cuts, decrying any concept of sacrifice and instead only suggest modest budget cuts down the road. They too promise Americans they can have it all – and ignore that it is our children that are paying for today’s excesses.
President Kennedy set an exemplary bar when he told every American to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” While our brave soldiers still live this creed, sadly our recent presidents have not.
President George W. Bush missed a huge opportunity to seek national sacrifice after September 11, and President Obama blew it after he created and then ignored the Bipartisan Deficit Commission, which suggested a plan of shared sacrifice. Is it any wonder that more and more Americans choose to live off the government rather than seek gainful employment?
Right now, someone on unemployment benefits simply needs to show they are actively looking for work – and this can go on for up to two years.
Yet, even President Obama’s top economic adviser has published research showing that extending unemployment benefits increases the jobless rate, proving that the longer the unemployment benefits, the longer people will stay unemployed.
My view is that any unemployment benefits lasting for more than a few weeks should be tied to volunteer work at a non-profit organization. Not only would this benefit the community but it would also keep the person active and engaged, both of which are critical during tough times.
What is often left out in these discussions is that a government check exhausts self-worth while an earned check gives a feeling of value, worth and contribution to an enterprise.
The truth is that Americans that do work are hard workers. According to OECD numbers, the average employed American in 2010 worked 1,778 hours per year. This is more than Japan, France and Germany.
Americans love our nation and care about our future.
I believe almost all Americans will do more with motivation, moral leadership and a sense of unity. Americans need to hear it from the top and will get off the dole or start sacrificing if they feel everyone else is also sacrificing.
Sadly, now, our leadership and our laws simply encourage taking. Except for our brave soldiers, we are far from the Kennedy ideal of giving to our country. It’s time we rethought our approach and considered the burden we are putting on our children.
I would welcome any of today's political leaders voicing the Kennedy-type call for patriotic sacrifice. Today's "have it all" leaders, instead, expand entitlements, cut taxes and promise equality of outcome.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”