How Responsible Is the Working Class For Its Success?


There are plenty of institutional structures in the U.S. designed to help people living in poverty, but getting to the root of the problem means more than just creating new government social welfare programs. It means recognizing a new revitalized emphasis on personal responsibility.

As a culture, we feel more comfortable discussing what we want than what we owe. We want working-class Americans to lead flourishing lives that include meaningful employment, and there can be little doubt—society has a moral obligation to work toward making this the case. But working-class Americans have duties as well.

For the working class, as for all Americans, the sense of duty rests on cultural norms—norms that have been eroding and need to be reinvigorated. The norm that if you can work, you should be working, even if the only job you can find pays 65 percent of what you made in your last job—and even if you have to move a few states away for a good job. That if you can work, you should be providing for your kids. That you have an obligation to contribute, adding your skills and talent and effort to the fabric of your community. A recovery of these basic norms would go a long way toward helping the working class lead full and flourishing lives.

As economic scholar Michael Strain writes, there's no longer a social stigma against idleness, and that needs to change.

Before the 1960s, a bit of peer pressure could convince one who was on the fence to go find work. However, over the last several decades, the negative connotation for able-bodied people being out of the workforce has lost its influence.

This stigma in particular, according to Strain, has an immense number of social implications. If a man is able to hold on to work, he is able to provide for his family and maintain that unit’s cohesion. When he is working, he also finds himself to be a positive force in his community.

It's a virtuous cycle, in which self-mastery, proper choices, and adherence to duty in each aspect of life reinforce duty, self-mastery, and proper choices in other realms—with obvious ensuing benefits to children and community.

Public policy can help reinvigorate these norms by supporting and encouraging work. And the norms in turn can help make public policy more effective by predisposing citizens to respond in more productive ways.

The implications are beyond just economic activity, and there are programs to help — work training that will equip people with necessary job skills, deregulation of the labor market, and reforming certain social welfare programs like disability insurance that often suppress workforce participation.

These kinds of approaches cost some money, but they cannot be done in a vacuum; they require that we as a society pressure people to back to work.

Better policy is not the only tool we have. Public leadership and public messaging are important as well. Americans with platforms and bully pulpits need to speak more clearly—about the challenges facing working-class Americans, but also their obligations. And members of society who are living by healthier norms—stable marriages, involved parenting, attachment to the workforce, and community involvement—should recover the confidence to "preach what they practice," as my colleague Charles Murray puts it.

We have a duty to our fellow man, but our fellow man has duties to himself and to his family as well.

What are some ways we can convince people that if they can work, they should? Share your thoughts with us!

Comments (1)
No. 1-1


One thing I'm starting to do when I have someone coming up to me asking for some spare change (presumably a homeless person) is asking if they have work. Sometimes there are people on the street corners asking for money because they just don't want to work, which is incredibly sad.

I had that experience recently with someone at Walmart. I asked him if he had work, and he said he had some but with winter it's a bit slower now. I then emphasized the point with him that work is what really gives us a sense of dignity and purpose. I think it made him think a bit, he was grateful for what I gave him and we both wished each other well. I'll have to consider other ways to bring up the topic of work with anyone I interact with who is in this kind of situation. We need to ask these kinds of questions to stir things up in them, to convince them that work is the solution.