Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A 35 Year Decline in the Desire to Work

Some of my progressive friends don’t like to hear this, even from a moderate Independent such as me.

But there is something to the concern that laziness may play a role in why a certain amount of poverty seems impervious despite societal safety nets.  More than 4-in-10 people who are poor seem to think so.

So do most progressives I suspect.  They are just less prone to stereotype the poor than many at the other end of the spectrum.

They also reject remedies from the far right that seek to starve out the small number of poor who are lazy with solutions that undermine millions of children in those homes along with the working poor, who as I will show, are among the most industrious Americans.

Only 26% of drug and alcohol treatment centers are residential and only a handful of those go beyond a few weeks or months.  Even fewer are centered on instilling a work ethic, as are the most successful, some of which also happen to be at no charge.

But ask the latter what the biggest reason is for washing out within the first months or so, regardless of socio-economic level and you’ll learn that it is an unwillingness to work.

Of course, this is a very small portion of those in poverty but while the question hasn’t been asked recently, in opinion polls 40% of those in that circumstance believe some of their peers are not doing enough and don’t really want to work.

This may also explain why many who are addicted prefer to panhandle along roadsides, which seems like it would be much harder than holding down a job.

But refusing to get clean, not lack of access, is why those who are panhandling aren’t able to access shelters and related workforce training.

Take away those who suffer from mental health issues and those who are crooks and you’ll find many who just refuse to work.

By the way, it hasn’t been posted yet but there is an excellent overview of the state of rehab in America in the investigative Mother Jones Magazine this month entitled Hung out to Dry by John Hill.

Apparently, of the 18.7 million Americans who needed alcohol treatment in 2010, only 1.7 million received it.

In a recent nationwide study of Americans, only 24% felt they had achieved the American Dream while 36% felt it unlikely including 21% who no longer give it much thought.

But 86% cited a strong work ethic as essential to achieving the American Dream.  Close behind that was parents or other adults who instill honesty, responsibility and persistence, followed by good schools.

Telling is that 42% felt the answer is individual effort compared to 39% who saw it being aided by society.  Disturbing is that 19% didn’t believe that either was the answer.

Equal percentages (43%) felt that the American Dream was endangered by a decline in work ethic and hard workers being shut out.  The fact that 14% felt that neither reflected their views may shed light on the number who are lazy among all socio-economic strata.

Since 1967, the Current Population Survey has been measuring among other things, the desire among individuals for work, last updated in 2014.

This is analyzed in a paper published last month.

My friends on the right have one answer for every societal ill: government.  Government undermines values, government caused the Great Depression and the Great Recession, government causes pollution, government caused the BP spill in the Gulf and on and on.

Ironically, the study documents that the 35 year decline in the desire to work started just as let ‘em “sink or swim” conservatives launched an all out attack on the safety-net, dramatically cut taxes for the rich and began to harangue and stereotype the poor.

The fraction of non-workforce participants reported as “wanting a job” trended up during the 1970s, then began a decades long slide beginning at the dawn of the 1980s just when the so-called Reagan Revolution promised the opposite.

The study entitled, Declining Desire to Work and Downward Trends in Unemployment and Participation is fascinating because it unwraps why the desire to work went into strong decline in the mid-1990s just after the government moved to “end welfare as we knew it.”

A report last year in the Wall Street Journal noted, using results from a joint survey by that paper and NBC News, how much the opinions of Americans has changed since 1995 regarding the causes of poverty.

In 1995, “Americans were twice as likely to believe poverty resulted from people not doing enough to help themselves out than to attribute it to external forces.”

Today, “Americans are as likely to blame poverty on circumstances beyond people’s control…,” although the majority of those holding power in Congress appear to remain stuck in the 1990s.

The percentage of Americans still holding to the view that it is because of laziness has plummeted, less among Republicans than Democrats and Independents and white Americans overall.

This hasn’t stopped the promotion of failed solutions across the ideological spectrum.  Personally, I favor a national living wage calibrated to localities, more affordable education and a return to a more progressive tax rate to fuel aspirations to achieve the American Dream.

But from my four decades as a chief executive, I feel we need to also find solutions that will address the 2-in-10 Americans who appear a bit lazy without, as many do today, stereotyping the poor.

Even the controversial white paper by the libertarian right Cato Institute, a follow up to one in 1995, acknowledges that “there is no evidence that people on welfare are lazy or do not wish to work.”

Studies also show there is no evidence that people who are poor value education any less or are any less involved with their children or are more addicted to substances than Americans overall.

Nor is there any evidence they are lazier.  In fact, many of these things correlate to incomes as they rise.

Laziness cuts across the entire spectrum, regardless of pocketbook size.  So should any solutions.

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