The Costs of Work

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.
A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

Personal responsibility in the United States is huge. It drives much of how we understand ourselves, others, and our economic and political systems. We believe that the individual has the power to shape their life for the better, to overcome obstacles, and to find success as long as they take the responsibility to do the right things. We reward those who are responsible and succeed and we offer little aid or assistance for those who can’t seem to figure it out on their own.
“Yet laying the blame on a lack of personal responsibility obscures the fact that there are powerful and ever-changing structural forces at play,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States there is opportunity to achieve the American Dream and to reach for a better life, but there are also challenging factors that limit the opportunities for some while amplifying the opportunities for others. There are real structural forces which limit the opportunities and second chances for some people, and are ignored by those who don’t face such challenges.
Writing specifically about the low-wage job market, Edin and Shaefer continue, “whatever can be said about the characteristics of the people who work low-wage jobs, it is also true that the jobs themselves too often set workers up for failure.”
Edin and Shaefer explore commonalities among low-wage jobs that seem designed to provide marginal benefits to employers by making the jobs themselves more challenging for the employees. Service sector jobs often have unpredictable hours, don’t come with any benefits, don’t include opportunities for promotion, and can be physically demanding without appropriate supplies and materials for employees to complete their work. When low-wage workers are desperate for employment, they cannot complain to any government agencies about unfair or poor working conditions. If the employer is shut down, then they loose their source of income, even if it is dehumanizing. As a result, hard work doesn’t pay in these low-wage jobs. After enough poor experiences where working hard doesn’t help someone get ahead, it is not surprising that many opt out all together or put forward minimal effort when they do get an opportunity.
The larger structural forces, however, often end up being ignored. In the United States we chose just to focus on the individual and their responsibility, blaming them for quitting a job which was designed to make them fail. We blame the individual for not being smart enough, skilled enough, or resilient enough to stick it out and get to a better position after starting at a minimum-wage, dead-end job. Personal responsibility and structural forces clash, but from the outside we are only able to focus on the failures of the individual, giving little thought to the larger forces at play.
$2.00 A Day

$2.00 A Day

In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer provide an insight into the lives of people living in extreme poverty in the United States. The book highlights a population that is largely invisible in the United States, those living on $2 a day or less, averaged across the entire year. It is hard to imagine that anyone in the United States could live on such a low income or even have such a low income, but Edin and Shaefer show that it is the case for some American’s and explain what life is like for those individuals.
They write, “Two dollars is less than the cost of a gallon of gas, roughly equivalent to the that of a half gallon of milk. Many American’s have spent more than that before they get to work or school in the morning. Yet in 2011, more than 4 percent of all households with children in the world’s wealthiest nation were living in a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe it even exists in this country.”
About a year ago I did a mini-dive into a series of books on homelessness and extreme poverty in the United States. Our country prides hard work and makes a lot of our social support programs conditional on individuals making an effort to improve their lives through their own industriousness. Our system is designed to reward those who work hard and put forward the effort to make their lives better, certainly something that is admirable and socially desired. However, one downside of this system is that people who either cannot or will not take the steps necessary to work hard and improve their lives are cast aside with minimal support.
I completely understand people’s dislike (in some cases even hatred) of free riders. It doesn’t feel good to have to go to work every day, to sacrifice sleep or spending time with the people and things we like, and to have to pay for for food, necessities, and pleasures out of hard earned paychecks. It is even worse when we see other people getting by without making the difficult choices that we make each day.
But I think the important thing to remember is that we are all humans, and that our true value as human beings doesn’t come from the work we do, but just from being humans. I think it is important that we all recognize how dependent we are on others, how much we have benefitted from other people to get to the place we are in (even if it isn’t where we want to be), and how much we all want to be respected simply for being ourselves. While we like to be admired for the things we accomplish, at the end of the day we want to be valued for being who we are, and not because of the special things we have done. A system that casts people out, allows them to degenerate on the streets with no support, and blames people who fail without aiding them is a system that has forgotten that our value as human beings is not dependent on our value to an economic or social system.
$2.00 a Day is an important book because it acknowledges an uncomfortable truth that most people try to ignore. For many of us we would rather not look at the person on the street corner asking for money, we would rather not think about people living in abject poverty, and we would not like to bear any responsibility for the poor living conditions of others. After all, most of us work very hard to try to maintain the lifestyles we live. $2.00 a Day reminds us that people living in poverty are still human, shows us that sometimes one poor decision multiplied and placed individuals in situations where making the right decisions to improve their lives was nearly impossible. It helps us appreciate how we got to where we are, and recognize a responsibility to the rest of our society, especially the segment of our society that has failed to the greatest extent. Ignoring the worst poverty in the nation and simply assuming that people are lazy and hopeless denies the humanity of those who suffer the most and can only perpetuate a problem we would like to wish away.
Predictable Outcomes

Predictable Outcomes

“In many domains people are tempted to think, after the fact, that an outcome was entirely predictable, and that the success of a musician, an actor, an author, or a politician was inevitable in light of his or her skills and characteristics. Beware of that temptation. Small interventions and even coincidences, at a key stage, can produce large variations in the outcome,” write Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge.

 

People are poor judges of the past. We lament the fact that the future is always unclear and unpredictable. We look back at the path that we took to get to where we are today, and are frustrated by how clear everything should have seemed. When we look back, each step to where we are seems obvious and unavoidable. However, what we forget in our own lives and when we look at others, is how much luck, coincidence, and random chance played a role in the way things developed. Whether you are a Zion Williams level athlete, a JK Rowling skilled author, or just someone who is happy with the job you have, there were plenty of chances where things could have gone wrong, derailing what seems like an obvious and secure path. Injuries, deaths in our immediate family, or even just a disparaging comment from the right person could have turned Zion away from basketball, could have shot Rowling’s writing confidence, and could have denied you the job you enjoy.

 

What we should recognize is that there is a lot of randomness along the path to success, it is not entirely about hard work and motivation. This should humble us if we are successful, and comfort us when we have a bad break. We certainly need to focus, work hard, develop good habits, and try to make the choices that will lead us to success, but when things don’t work out as well as we hoped, it is not necessarily because we lack something and are incompetent. At the same time, reaching fantastic heights is no reason to proclaim ourselves better than anyone else. We may have had the right mentor see us at the right time, we may have just happened to get a good review at the right time, and we maybe just got lucky when another person was unlucky to get to where we are. We can still be proud of where we are, but we shouldn’t use that pride to deny other people opportunity. We should use that pride to help other people have lucky breaks of their own. Nothing is certain, even if it looks like it always was when you look in the rear view mirror.

Praising Effort

In the book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, the author looks into the role that motivation and positive reinforcement play on children and their development. One area that Wiseman focuses on is academic performance and praise.  He reviews the work by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck and sums up their findings with the following quote, “The results clearly showed that being praised for effort was very different from being praised for ability. …children praised for effort were encouraged to try regardless of the consequences, therefore sidestepping any fear of failure.” Mueller and Dweck studied over 400 children and their performance on tests and puzzles. The researchers administered tests to all of their participants, and collected and scored the results.  Half of the students were told they did very well and must be very intelligent, while the other half had their tests collected without being told anything.  After tests had been collected and graded the students were given similar tests with similar problems and the students who had been praised actually performed worse than the students met with silence.

I think about this study frequently, both with how I would approach young kids (I don’t have children and don’t interact with kids too often) and with how I approach myself. What Wiseman suggested from the research is that children who were told they were smart ended up being afraid to truly apply themselves. If they put in a full effort and failed, they would risk losing the praise of being smart. The identity label we attached to them would fizzle away and they would lose the praise they received.

On the other hand, children praised for being hard-working, for studying hard, and for working well with others have a reason to continue to apply themselves. Being hard working is not the same as just being talented or naturally smart. It is a mindset and a disposition that can be cultivated over time and developed, even if we don’t seem to have some natural special something to make us smart, creative, or exceptionally insightful.

The way I think about this research in my own life is in thinking about praising effort over praising identity. In myself, when I think about what I want to do, what I could do moving forward, and about the things I should be proud of myself for doing, I try to think about the habits, focus, learning, and hard work that I put forward. I don’t judge my blog by the number of viewers, I don’t just myself by my bank account, and I don’t judge my fitness by how many people I beat in a half marathon. Instead, I ask if I truly worked hard, if I was consistent and applied myself to the best of my ability, and if I am using my resources in a responsible way to help others. We should all try to avoid judging ourselves and others based on fleeting identity cues, and instead we should judge ourselves and praise ourselves and others based on the level of hard work, engagement with others and the community, and the efforts we put forward to make the world a great place.

Staying Humble Out of the Spotlight

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Seneca wrote in one of his letters captured in the book Letters From a Stoic. This quote was at the heart of yesterday’s post, but it is only one part of a larger post that I want to write about. Yesterday I discussed the way that we can have a big impact on a small group of people. I wrote about our desires to speak to the masses and how we change our conversations and communication styles when we try to write for infinite audiences as opposed to writing for a committed few. Today’s post is more about reflection and avoiding the spotlight to remain humble and honest with oneself.

 

Seneca continues, “Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.”

 

Our society rewards those who can do rare and challenging work. If you have a unique ability to produce a painting that appeals to everyone and captures the moment, then you may be rewarded by selling your art at a high price. If you can out-run everyone else on the planet, you may be rewarded with some cash, a shiny medal, and a new shoe deal. And if you can write clearly and express your thoughts and ideas so well that everyone can understand them and learn from them, then you may be able to sell your words and ideas in a mass publication. We are all about rewarding hard work that most people cannot do. This is not a bad thing, but just part of how we evolved.

 

What can be a bad thing, however, is taking the fact that we can do something difficult and socially rewarded and then holding ourselves above others. Notoriety, skill, and wealth do not mean we are actually different from those who sleep in the streets. We are all human, and we should strive to find a commonality between us and others such that we find the same value in ourselves as we do in those that we might naturally want to scorn and look down upon. The best qualities are those that help us do great work for our own satisfaction and to align ourselves with values that expand human creativity, dignity, respect, and well being for all. Seeking attention and glory is dangerous because it creates a world that is entirely about us, often at the detriment of another.

 

We can strive for great work and if we receive wealth, attention, and applause we can enjoy and appreciate it, but we should not seek these things out for their own sake. They should be byproducts of our great work, and we should always be somewhat distrustful of them. Looking inward, we can appreciate our success without the need for applause from the outside.

Make an Investment in Yourself

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday encourages us to push back against the idea of fake it ’til you make it, something that is said from time to time by those trying to become successful and trying to prove their value and skill. Fake it ’till you make it, Holiday argues, is something that is driven by our ego and our desire to be recognized as important. Fake it ’til you make it is not, however, a practical way to develop the skills and abilities that one needs to truly become the things that we present to the world when we are faking it.

 

In his book, Holiday writes about the marshmallow test, a famous psychology test where children were given the option to eat one marshmallow now, or wait in a room with the marshmallow for a few minutes and get a second one if they can delay gratification. For many of us in our own lives, delaying gratification is as hard as it might be for a child alone with a sweet treat. We know we can wait to make a purchase and have money to pay it off in full, but our fake it ’til you make it culture tells us to buy thing on credit, which leads to payments we sometimes can’t afford and we end up paying more overall than we would have if we had waited. The alternative to this mindset according to Holiday is a work ethic that is driven by delaying gratification. (On a side note, it is my understanding that the famous Marsh-mellow Test has had reproducibility problems within psychology research. Maybe be skeptical about the authenticity of the results of that original study but understand what it was trying to say about us.) 

 

Holiday writes, “Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego.”

 

Fake it ’til you make it pumps up our image of who we are without adding any substance to ourselves and our abilities. It is impulsive and tells us that we need certain things to be part of the right group, to play the part we want, and to feel successful. Hard work on the other hand is often quiet, out of the way, and not immediately satisfying. Purchasing a new sports car to look the part of a successful person feels good, whereas driving a worn out car and arriving early to get some extra focus work done is just exhausting and sometimes frustrating. In the end however, the sports car doesn’t make you any better at what you do (not that the beat up car does), but the hard work you put in when you decide not to fake it does make you better. It prepares you for new opportunities, opens new doors, and allows you to step up to the plate without anxiety and fear because you know you have prepared for the moment. And if you don’t  get the promotion, if you stumble with the presentation, or if the company goes under, you can move forward with less stress because you didn’t purchase a car you can’t afford to show people you don’t really like how successful you have become.

 

Delaying gratification never feels good, and it doesn’t necessarily make your future indulgence feel any better, but it does create a more even path as you move forward. Instant gratification can lead to greater volatility which you may traverse just fine, but taking things slower and making more investments in yourself than in your ego and material goods will create a more smooth path with bigger guard rails that you can lean on when the seas become choppy. Remembering that hard work will take you where you want to go, and that each small investment will build to your future can help you keep the right attitude to put real effort forward and combat the desire to fake it.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart when the researchers gave each group a follow-up test of equivalent difficulty. The group told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test while the group told they had worked hard performed either just as well or slightly better. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for working hard, learning, and being good students did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse, and were more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. The ego does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans are. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on implementing the things we say we want to do. If we remember that the  hard work is what is important, and focus on that instead of focusing on talking about our goals then we can address the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.

Continual Effort

At the moment I am recovering from an ankle injury from a few weeks back. I was out for a run one morning and was not looking very closely at where I was going. There was a rock on the sidewalk that I did not see and I sprained my ankle when I stepped on it. This last weekend was the first time I had run in two weeks. I am slowly getting back to 100%, but it has required each day that I do a lot of small things that all build up to improve the physical fitness and strength of my ankle. I would like to only need ice one time and I would love if the one trip to a physical therapist’s office had solved all my problems, but as anyone who has had an injury knows, the body needs time to heal and continual effort, thought, and care are required to make sure injuries recover to be as strong as before.

 

It is a frustrating inconvenience to slowly recover from a physical injury, but we all know it will take time and understand that we won’t be back to full health overnight or with the snap of a finger. But for some reason, this understanding is hard to extend beyond physical recovery from an injury to other areas of our life. Somewhere deep down we recognize that becoming really great at something is going to require a lot of work over a long period of time, but we often don’t have the patience to put forth the effort to truly become great at something. We want an instant success, just like I want an instantly healed ankle.

 

Whether it is getting in shape, becoming a good chess player, becoming a good writer, or excelling in our career, there is only one answer: continual focused effort. Author Ryan Holiday writes about it in his book The Ego is the Enemy, “to get where we want to go isn’t about brilliance, but continual effort.” It is not one shining moment that will bring us success, but rather a thousand small moments of effort and preparation that will bring about our one shining moment. The brilliance and the flash are ultimately less important and less valuable than the work and the habits we build that make the impressive moments possible.

 

This feels like a real drag and it feels terrible to be working hard at something and then see another person apparently achieve the success we want out of no-where, but if we can control our own ego we can control the way these moments make us feel. In his book, Holiday continues, “While that’s not a terribly sexy idea, it should be an encouraging one. Because it means it’s all within reach-for all of us, provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work.” Winning a body building competition, having an exciting career opportunity, or cultivating a beautiful garden is something that is possible for all of us, but we must recognize it is not something we will achieve in just one day, one week, or even in one year. Through continual effort and focused application of our time and energy we can get to where we want to be, but we must recognize when we are hoping for a brilliant ego-boosting flash, and instead channel our attention back to the effort and habits we build that will sustain us for success in the long run. Just as I can’t push my ankle to suddenly be healthy (or I’ll fall in disastrous ruin), we can’t push our goals to suddenly be achieved. We must put forward the continual effort to prepare for the moment we seek.

Training Daily

Life is hard and each day can be its own struggle and battle, but learning measured approaches to life can give us the tools and training that we need to face those challenges successfully. We all hope to have success, to have an easy life with plenty of opportunities, but we know we will face failures, frustration, confusion, and stagnation. If we can build a solid routine, we can face these obstacles nobly and act accordingly to move forward.

 

In his book, Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes about the daily effort to prepare ourselves for the challenges life will present us with. Holiday writes, “My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean for ever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.”

 

Anyone who has ever gone to the  gym knows you don’t leave looking like an Avenger after just one workout. It is continual effort that slowly gets us where we need to be. Accordingly, for us to build our mental fortitude and prepare for failures and successes, we must build our self-awareness, focus on disarming our ego, and concentrate on growth, learning, and improvement daily. If we do not, the skills that will help us climb from our low point will grow dusty and be buried in the daily grit of life. Each day doesn’t need to be a grueling exercise, but we do need to continually dust off our skills for approaching life.