T.W. Shannon Recovers the Worth of Work

June 5, 2013

It’s with good reason that Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon continues to garner respect and attention from thoughtful people across the country.

Among other accomplishments, Shannon sponsored House Bill 1909, which requires able-bodied individuals, ages 18 to 50, who are not raising a child, to perform at least 20 hours of work activities to receive food stamps.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed the welfare reform bill into law April 30, and the bill takes effect November 1.

The idea of “work requirements” is nothing new. In fact, the stipulations in Shannon’s bill come from the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act, a law that is still on the books but that the Obama administration selectively enforces.

The passage of House Bill 1909, then, is less a policy innovation than it is true policy reform—the recovery of an important, enduring principle that confounds those modern politicians who can conceive of no higher compassion than that of the handout.

Work matters—not merely for what it accomplishes on its object (the product), but also for what it accomplishes within its subject (the producer).

Materialists—of which there are many types—would have us believe the effects of work are limited to what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.

If that were true, then all the effects of work would be completely transferable. Whether we required welfare recipients to work would be a purely economic question: Do we as a society have the resources to provide food stamps to all those who need or want them? If we do, then we will. If we don’t, then we will require some of those who need or want food stamps—i.e., those who are able-bodied—to work. In fact, though, the effects of work are not limited to what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Work, again, accomplishes something within its subject.

What that “something” is varies from subject to subject, depending on the particular person and the particular type of work. In some, work evinces a healthy pride. In others, hardiness and self-discipline. In still others, joy.

In general, though, the “something” can be summarized as a sense of earned success—and, as American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks never tires of repeating, earned success is strongly correlated with happiness, just as unearned transfers of wealth are correlated with a lack of happiness.

Going on the welfare rolls increases by 16 percent the likelihood of a person saying he or she has felt inconsolably sad over the past month (even after controlling for poverty and unemployment), according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, cited by Brooks in a December 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Similarly, low-income married couples that receive government assistance report lower levels of marital commitment and satisfaction than low-income married couples that do not receive government assistance, according to a 2011 study from the University of Missouri.

(It’s important here to note, though, that married couples in general enjoy better health and happiness overall than the non-married: Married couples report less depression, less anxiety, and lower levels of psychological distress than those who are single, divorced, or widowed, according to the study Social Causes of Psychological Distress.)

In light of these effects, the question of whether we require welfare recipients to work acquires a moral dimension: Should we as a society deprive welfare recipients of the non-material (i.e. spiritual) effects of work?

T.W. Shannon says “no”—and that’s precisely what makes his sponsorship of H.B. 1909 so meaningful. He sponsored the bill because he has compassion for others.

“Unfortunately, some believe compassion is measured by how many people you can keep on a government aid program,” Speaker Shannon has said. “We must change the paradigm.”

Indeed—and not just for the sake of welfare recipients, but for the sake of anyone who begrudges work.

Sadly, a commitment to work is on the decline among young people, according to psychologists Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Tim Kasser of Knox College.

Twenge and Kasser analyzed data from the Monitoring the Future survey, which has tracked the views of a representative sample of 17- and 18-year-olds since 1976.

Less than two of three millennials who graduated high school from 2005 to 2007 say they see work as a central part of life. Thirty-nine percent of millennials admit that “not wanting to work hard” might prevent them from landing a desired job.

If that’s because they’re willing to sacrifice some material goods to spend more time around the hearth and home, good; family takes primacy over career in “the good life,” as I’ve argued elsewhere. Unfortunately, the research shows that’s not the case: Most millennials still want “the stuff.”

Just 62 percent of Americans under 30 (again, millennials) are working, and, of those, half toil at part-time jobs, according to a February 2013 report from Harvard University.

That statistic indicts millennials just as much as it indicts the economy.

However desperately we try to deny it, work is a requirement of life. When embraced, mysteriously enough, it also becomes a source of the happiness for which millennials—and, indeed, all people—are restlessly seeking.

“Oh, we may get weary and think work is dreary; ’tis harder by far to have nothing to do.”

Tina Korbe Dzurisin is a research associate at OCPA. Formerly, she was a staff writer at The Heritage Foundation and an associate editor at HotAir.com.