The Costs of Work

One argument that is popular against welfare and social support programs is that they discourage work by encouraging people to sit at home collecting a welfare/disability/unemployment check rather than being a productive member of society. This is an argument that is picking up steam as we start to move away from the COVID-19 pandemic, as enhanced unemployment benefits run out, and as companies have trouble hiring back employees who seemingly don’t want to return to work.
To me, as I have heard people make this argument, I think that people make a mistake in who they think are the primary beneficiaries of welfare/disability/unemployment benefits and I think they make a mistake in how they imagine people receiving such benefits actually live. I think people imagine their own lives and living standards, and transpose those onto benefits recipients, except with money coming from the government and not from a job. They see people who are just like them, enjoy the same living standards, but choosing to be lazy instead of making the sacrifices that work requires. With this vision it is understandable that people get angry and want to tear down such social support systems.
I recognize that fraud, waste, and abuse of social support systems occurs. I know there are people cheating the system to get disability insurance and that they would find a way to go back to work if their checks ran out. I also know there are people abusing food stamps programs, and I generally believe it is better for people to be working productively than watching the price is right and not trying to do something valuable for themselves and others. However, I think these arguments are often more anecdotal than factual, and I think tearing down the whole system because a few people cheat is dangerous and misguided. I think the statistics demonstrate that the programs are necessary, and I think that additional considerations regarding the cost of work should also be made to help us better understand why there are “lazy cheats” out there.
Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer do a good job examining the real costs of work and the pressures these costs place on families and individuals to rely on social support systems rather than their own industriousness. Regarding welfare in 1996, the year it effectively died to be replaced by a new system, the authors write, “Work paid only a little more than welfare but cost a lot more in terms of added expenses for transportation, child care, health care, and the like. It was more expensive to go to work than stay on the welfare rolls.”
20 years later we still have this problem, especially in large cities where economic opportunities seem to be located. The costs that people face when trying to work rather than when accepting social support program benefits add up and are impacted by many factors beyond the wage than an individual can earn. Many cities are too expensive to live in, and as a result people have to commute very long distances to get to work, and that commuting adds up in terms of time, vehicle maintenance, or transportation fares. While working and commuting, children need to be watched by someone, adding child care costs into the equation. Time spent in a car or sitting on a bus also takes away from any chance to be physically active to help ones health, potentially increasing health care costs because an individual doesn’t have time to cook a healthy meal and doesn’t have time to go to a gym or get out on a walk.
Individuals who might be prone to laziness don’t have a hard decision to make when faced with these calculations. They can lose all their time, have to pay for child care, and end up with poor health and few extra dollars to spend if they pursue work. The alternative is to accept poverty, accept government aid, and at least reduce the costs, time demands, and stress that work adds to their lives. However, I don’t think most people enjoy or want this life, and I don’t think it is anything to be jealous of.
I don’t think the answer here is simply that employers need to pay more and that the minimum wage needs to be raised. I think that can certainly be part of the equation, but we clearly also need to help people live closer to their jobs, have better affordable access to healthcare, and afford quality child care that will help their kids and keep them safe. This is an idealistic and possibly unrealistic set of policy desires, but I think that is because we have misperceptions about who uses aid, and about our roles and responsibilities as individuals within society. I think that years of focusing on ourselves as individuals has in part contributed to the erosion or lack of development of social supports that would help tip the balance for those prone toward laziness away from staying home and toward working. As it is now, we accept the high costs of work and then criticize those who opt out.

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