Woes of welfare.

Author:Harvey, Phil
Position:Life in America

WHAT DOES WORK have to do with happiness? "I don't know if it's happiness," said Cora, a teacher and tribal member we met on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. "I just know that something happens to people when they get a job. They sit up straighten Their chin comes up. They carry themselves with pride. They say hello to me in the supermarket. I know everyone on this reservation, and I can tell when someone is working because they'll greet me at the store and brag on what they are doing with their lives."

What we mean by happiness is a long-term, overarching condition. Like "a long and happy life" and "a happy marriage," happiness as defined here does not mean the absence of pain and problems. It entails engagement with people and projects geared toward accomplishment and the tangible and psychological rewards of getting things done. While happiness is subjective and often idiosyncratic, it almost always involves effort, whether we embrace the effort or have it thrust upon us.

Of course, paid employment (a particular category of effort) offers an additional reward: the paycheck. A job, whatever its shortcomings, contains the seeds of self-sufficiency. Bringing the paycheck home lets us enjoy the feeling, "I did that."

Here are a few of the reasons that work is so important for happiness:

* Self-respect requires achievement If we do not accomplish anything, it nearly is impossible to think highly of ourselves.

* Having no work to do means boredom, and often depression, alcohol, and drugs. While many of those on welfare keep busy, many do not.

* Being needed gives us stature and importance. Parents of young children are needed, for sure, and we may be faced with imperative demands to fulfill needs of other family members or friends, but work also means we are needed. That paycheck is proof of it.

* Independence is important to self-respect. If we depend on others for our sustenance, we are incurring a debt that diminishes us and makes us feel patronized, undermining happiness.

One worrying aspect of today's welfare system is the extent to which benefits are provided to those who do not meet the Federal definition of poverty. A major push in this direction was provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act introduced by a Democratic Congress in 2009 in response to the financial crisis and subsequent recession. That act allowed states and implementing agencies the flexibility to push the qualifying income level for several of the major welfare...

To continue reading