| September 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day to the Joneses!

It is customary, on Labor Day, to recall both the centrality of man to the economy and the inherent worth of work.

Inadvertently, because Labor Day is also a day on which Americans frequently feast at a cookout, cruise on a lake or shop the sales, Labor Day has also recently become an annual occasion of self-pity and class envy.

It’s easy to look at the neighbors’ new grill, speedboat or full-price wardrobe and indulge the pangs of jealousy. Suddenly, Labor Day becomes less an opportunity to give gratitude for gainful employment than it is an opportunity to bemoan income inequality.

Case in point: After Labor Day last year, reporters circulated a photo of then-Republican-presidential-nominee Mitt Romney grinning broadly on the back of a jet ski, with his glamorous wife, Anne, grasping the handlebar. No one – not even sympathetic pundits – captioned the photo kindly.

Reporters agreed: Romney had been insensitive not only to the many workers who were then unemployed but also to anyone whose net worth was smaller than his. In other words, Romney had been insensitive to just about everyone.

Never mind, for a moment, the context of the election. What, really, was wrong with Romney’s lake outing? Once upon a time, it would have served more to stoke the ambitions of workers than to discourage them.

This year – primarily because it is not an election year, but also because unemployment has trended downward ever so slightly – the plight of the worker no longer appears to be priority No. 1 for politicians. When national leaders (ahem, President Obama!) do talk about it, though, they continue to incense those who are poor against those who are rich.

In his July 24 speech on the economy, President Obama once again demonized “the very wealthy” and “those at the top.” He might as well have demonized work itself.

In our country today, most of those who are relatively rich are not rich because they inherited great sums of money or because they invested especially shrewdly. Most are rich because they’ve worked long hours over a long period of time.

Families in the top 20 percent of earners account for a third of all work in the United States as compared to only 4 percent of hours worked for the bottom fifth, according to Heritage Foundation scholars Robert Rector and Rea Hederman.

A male worker with more than a high school degree works almost 20 percent more hours than a male worker with less than a high school education, according to the paper, “The Evolution of Income, Consumption and Leisure Inequality in the U.S., 1980–2010.”

In any event, economic mobility matters far more than static snapshots of income distribution anyway – and, in the United States today, there is no greater challenge to upward mobility than the collapse of the family, a topic on which too many leaders are reticent.

Half of all children born to continuously married parents in the bottom third of income move to either the middle or the top as compared to only a quarter of children in divorced families, according to the paper “Family Structure and the Economic Mobility of Children” by Thomas DeLeire and Leonard M. Lopoo.

Children living in single-parent homes are 50 percent more likely to experience poverty as adults when compared to children from intact married homes, writes Robert Rector in the paper “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.”

If an appreciation for the worth of work has eroded in this country (and it has!), it is only because an appreciation for family – that primal institution that renders all work meaningful – eroded first.

This Labor Day, may we appreciate not only the work we have to do, but those for whom we have to do it – and may we pursue policies that encourage others – including those who are unemployed, underemployed or dejected at the material gains they’ve netted – to find in “the ties that bind” the surest social safety net of all.

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