Why Welfare Should Respect the Dignity of Work

The Obama administration, through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced a new policy directive to the states that would waive work requirements in the welfare program known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). This program specifies the work requirements that accompany welfare assistance and requires recipients to work or actively look for work. The new policy suggests that new flexibility for states to help families find and secure employment.

Since the emergence of this presidential memo, the issue has been hotly debated on both sides of the political aisle. But are we asking the right questions? What does removing the work requirements do to the very nature of work itself, and how does it alter the incentives for those receiving welfare?

Designed to Work

From a Judeo-Christian perspective, we see that people are designed to work. In the Book of Genesis we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Wheaton College professor Leland Ryken comments on this verse: “Here human work is shown to have worth and dignity as a service to God and as something that gives purpose to human life.”

And because the Bible teaches that men and women are made in God’s image, we are endowed with creativity and uniqueness. We all have special gifts and talents that differ in degree, kind, and combination. Being a good steward of these talents, we are to package them and offer them to the world through our work, whether we as a CEO or janitor.

Taking away work requirements, rather than continuing to build skills and hone talents, encourages dependency. And dependency can ensnare. It is what Alexander Hamilton warned about when he said, “A power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” Dependency encourages us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. Removing the incentive for able-bodied men and women to work fosters continual reliance on others, robbing us of our dignity and sapping our creative spirit. It can actually harm the very people we intend to help.

Purpose of Prosperity

From an economic perspective, think about what has fueled progress in the United States over the last 200: a productive institutional environment where work and innovation are rewarded and encouraged. Specialization and the division of labor have fostered massive economic growth, allowing most people to rise above subsistence living. It has created jobs in a wide diversity of areas from auto manufacturing and construction to technology and medicine.

The entire goal of a prosperous society is to have fewer and fewer people who need the support of welfare. To achieve that goal we need to foster an environment where people, with the support of neighbors, churches, and non-profit organizations, can learn new skills and hone them through the market. This is the best anti-poverty program the world has ever known.

Finally, the key to making short-term support beneficial is that the support remains short-term. The goal in helping people is to set them up for success and put them in a position where they no longer need the welfare. And that is what we got in the welfare reform of the 1990s that this new executive order threatens to undo. According to the Heritage Foundation, six years after TANF was introduced the results were tremendous:

• Overall poverty, child poverty, and black child poverty all dropped substantially.

• Some 2.9 million fewer children lived in poverty in 2003 than in 1995.

• A dramatic reduction in the number of black children living in poverty.

• Hunger among children was cut roughly in half.

• Welfare caseloads were cut nearly in half

• The explosive growth curve of out-of-wedlock childbearing had come to a virtual halt.

Those are true innovations—long-term reductions in poverty, hunger, and dependence and getting people back to work—not only so that they can help themselves but also so they can bring their unique gifts, talents, and skills to serve their communities and workplaces.

  • Pete K

    Case in point is the UK. I work in criminal law and have seen generations of families who have never worked. Teenagers have children so as to become single Mums and become eligible for welfare. It’s tragic.

    • Ben K

      Case in point in Canada. I live in a city with the nations highest number of welfare families per capita and have visited quite a large number of their homes through my work. Many able bodied people have learned how to manipulate the system to remain on assistance and have taught further generations to do the same. The statistics in the the article do not surprise me one bit.

    • Robert

      So funny.

  • mel

    While I do think there should be work requirements I think we need to remember that people cut from welfare because they have failed to find a job thereby cutting the “caseloads” isn’t really a reduction in numbers. We also need to remember that this is a way to bandaid the fact that there are not enough jobs. Though the president would like us to believe otherwise.

    Pete, I remember the system before the work requirement in the US. It was the same here. Even families that become Christians have it so ingrained in their upbringing to “work the system” that a work ethic becomes lost.

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  • http://longerthoughts.wordpress.com David

    Dan Mitchell has a great graph showing the “welfare cliffs” that exist today: http://bit.ly/MrnVhT

    Basically, because of the way welfare is structured, there are several income levels where earning more money from a job will result in less total income, because you’ll receive fewer government benefits. Obviously that’s an incentive to work less.

  • Jay

    As noted in the first paragraph of this article, the stated goal of the US HHS memo is to allow “new flexibility for states to help families find and secure employment.” Reading through the linked linked memorandum confirms this, and along with the flexibility provided to states also requires accountability:

    In providing for these demonstrations, HHS will hold states accountable by requiring both a federally-approved evaluation and interim performance targets that ensure an immediate focus on measurable outcomes

    Maybe it could be argued that the measures will not work, but it would be difficult to fault the memorandum for that, in that it states that the flexibility is being offered to allow states to experiment, and that the flexibility will be revoked if measurable success is not reported.

    The article here does not seem to be addressing the actual issues in the policy change or possible outcomes. Instead, it seems to be using the connection between the values of work and dignity to paint the Obama administration as “un-Christian.” Perhaps the policy change is actually a pragmatic approach for the government to better achieve the values the article here espouses? If it is not, why not?

  • Sally

    I’m afraid this is what is happening here in the UK.
    Too many people think the state is there to pay for everything without ever the need to go and earn it yourself..We have thousands of families who think it’s ‘their right’ to live off benefit for life.

  • Mark S

    I am reformed in my theology. I have worked actively since I was 11 years old. I currently work 2 jobs over 55 hours a week.

    With that said, I have first hand seen the need for welfare. I have seen it abused and also seen families who had seasons of life where they needed assistance.

    This article was disappointing in it’s lack of acknowledging the need for assistance that is completely merciful. I do think that as believers we are to work hard. Man was created to work. But giving mercy with stipulations isn’t mercy at all. And that’s from a Christian perspective. This is the government installing mercy programs.

  • Tim Burks

    I would like to also read your thoughts on how the rich and powerful should regard the dignity of work. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/28/jamie-dimon-newspaper-reporter-pay_n_1307989.html

    Christianity should never be anyone’s tool.

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  • Jay

    Christianity should never be anyone’s tool

    Exactly. And this article is just playing political games under the guise of presenting something biblical. Just read this, what other president candidates wrote:

    In 2005, Romney and 28 other Republican governors wrote a letter to Congress requesting even more flexibility than Obama has offered, for the purpose of “[e]mpowering states to seek new and innovative solutions to help welfare recipients achieve independence.”

    “Increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work,” read the letter, which was co-signed by prominent GOP governors like Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee and Jon Huntsman.


  • Phil
  • Robert

    Would Jesus claim benefits if he came down from the cross with his wounds, of course not they would have healed with miracle.