In Prospect

Winter 1997

Out of the ethical wreckage that the cultural revolution of the sixties left behind, one value emerged more or less intact—the value of work. True, the revolution flirted with the idea of "dropping out" (along with "tuning in" and "turning on"). But before long, the counterculture’s flower children and radicals were agitating for tenure and partnerships; Yippie Jerry Rubin went to work on Wall Street, and Black Panther Bobby Seale went into the cookbook business. Only the very poor remained marooned in the idea, retailed to them by the cultural vanguard, that working in some "jive job" for "chump change" was beneath their dignity, worse than taking welfare (which was no more than their due) or "hustling" (which was a manly rebellion against oppression).

Now workfare—the subject of our two remarkable cover stories, "Welfare Reform Discoveries" and "At Last, a job Program That Works"—seeks to reverse that dysfunctional state of affairs. For welfare reformers, work is the perfect rallying cry, because troops of varying beliefs can utter it with conviction. But different reformers mean different things by it. For followers of Charles Murray, the work requirement changes welfare’s incentive structure: welfare recipients are rational beings who weigh costs and benefits and decide that welfare’s economic package, obtained with no countervailing effort, is a good bargain. Change the economic equation by adding in the work requirement, and you’ll change the resulting behavior. For reformers who believe, as we do, that the self-destructive behavior of underclass welfare recipients, including their welfare dependency, springs from the worldview in their heads—that such behavior is a product of culture and values—the work requirement is a welcome change in the cultural message. People will do what the surrounding culture tells them is right.

Though it suggests that the culture is changing, a change in social policy isn’t by itself cultural change. Nor does making people work necessarily inculcate them with a work ethic. The great Victorian evangelists of the work ethic praised work for its effect on the inner being. To them, work was the great instrument of self-development, the medium through which individuals learn who they are and become everything it is in their power to be. Work develops a host of accompanying virtues, like steadfastness and self-respect. But—and here’s the rub—only for those who already have the inner discipline to work in the first place. What our stories both report is that many welfare recipients lack those personal qualities. They need to develop several more primitive virtues, including punctuality and a willingness to oblige, before they can participate in work and reap its psychic as well as its material benefits. For them, having to go to work is only part of the cultural change they need, and not the part they need most right now.

If workfare doesn’t do much for these people, it also doesn’t begin to address the biggest welfare problem—the passing down of dependency and its social pathologies from generation to generation by unmarried mothers who have babies they aren’t qualified or ready to raise properly. As "Welfare Reform Discoveries" points out, despite workfare’s successes in Wisconsin, the illegitimacy rate is going up. Fortunately, as both stories report, efforts to change the cultural messages welfare clients receive are under way, and they point the direction that the next round of welfare reform will have to go.

And what about the opposite extreme of the social scale? Was snatching the value of work from the cultural wreckage enough to make a fulfilled life for the privileged? Not according to Jonathan Foreman, whose hilarious account of working for a white-shoe Manhattan law firm, beginning on page 88, is a chronicle of 100-hour weeks, with no life outside the office, not even to see if the sky is blue, much less to participate in a family or a community. It is an existence in which the work ethic is the only ethic, and Foreman found it proved too thin to be sustaining. The task of cultural reconstruction, these articles suggest, needs to be accomplished at all levels of society.