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Chapter 1: Why Work Matters

The U.S. is the richest nation in history. To see ­members of our society languishing in poverty, therefore, is distressing. Many of our official responses to low income, unfortunately, offer only short-term help—and even make problems worse in the long run. Government offers checks and food stamps. Philanthropy offers hot meals and shelters and donated goods. These efforts meet temporary needs. But they seldom lead to lasting improvements in the lives of strugglers, and short-term aid can become a trap.

What if we’re looking in the wrong place for cures to poverty? If we cast about us to learn what it is that banishes needs and fills wants for most people, the answer is obvious: Work. That is the poverty solution that happens all around us, every day. The purpose of this guidebook is to help charitable providers lead people who are currently living at the economic margins into mainstream success and happiness through work.

Of course, work is much more than just a mechanism for reducing poverty. Our religious traditions teach that work has intrinsic value. In the Hebrew account of creation, God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden and instructed him “to work it and keep it.” In the New Testament, Paul stated that “if a man will not work, he will not eat.” The Calvinist work ethic brought to our shores by the Puritans equated diligent work with duty to God.

More than any other nation on Earth, the United States has a rich tradition of insisting that hard work is ennobling. In our country—unlike others—even the most mundane occupations have been viewed as bringing honor to the laborer. And this has helped every succeeding generation of Americans enjoy a brighter economic future than the one before it.

The American experience with work stands counter to most of human history. For centuries, work was a compulsory drudgery, essential for survival but seldom leading to clear and lasting improvements in living conditions. In the dynamic American economy, work effort translated much more predictably and reliably into prosperity. Work brought tangible outcomes, often quickly, that could be savored, shared, and used to build a future for one’s family, community, and the nation as a whole.

These twin benefits of the American work ethic—material betterment and a sense of personal value—have sometimes been lost sight of in recent years and are no longer experienced by all of our citizens. Amid new ideas of entitlement and guaranteed outcomes, and expanded notions of retirement and disability, there are pockets where the virtues of work are no longer understood or appreciated, or where residents have become entangled in dribbling payment programs that make active employment almost impossible. Moreover, specific jobs used as stepping stones by many people in the past have disappeared due to technological change or economic globalism. There are spatial mismatches, skill gaps, and missing habits, attitudes, and experiences that separate workers from work.

Of the 27 million persons of working age (18-64) who fell below the poverty line in 2013, 16 million didn’t hold a job for even one week during the year. So simply going to work is the first step they (and their dependents) most need. Among the 10 million prime-age persons who were poor though they did work, some lacked the requisite skills to support themselves, but most just put in too few hours to sustain a household.

Diligent work is not something innately wired into human beings. It must be taught, cultivated, and practiced. It is a skill set, like any other, that must be pursued. Offering employment tools and productive attitudes toward work and self-support is a fertile field for charitable donors.

Good charitable organizations do a better job at linking the disadvantaged with careers than government agencies. They are more personal and less bureaucratic. They have no guaranteed budgets, so only survive if they produce results. They often look far beyond initial job offers to seek ways of life that will be durable for the people they help.

Unlike government agencies, private civil-society groups are free to address issues of character, personal behavior, virtue, and habit without risking a lawsuit. Many of these organizations bring moral insights to their job training, as well as community values, and faith angles, knowing that they have no coercive powers over clients who voluntarily choose to participate. Their offerings are often about a renewed life, a second chance, days of purpose—not just a job.

In this guidebook we’ll highlight scores of local nonprofits that have good records of helping marginal populations become happily employed. We’ll discover what succeeds and what doesn’t. Donors, charitable practitioners, and pioneering thinkers will explain triumphs and failures in their own words and describe, from experience, the lives they’ve seen deflected from misery and dependence toward productivity and fulfillment.

This book explores in detail the practices that have produced results with seven important populations that particularly struggle with work:

  • Single parents on assistance
  • Released prisoners
  • The homeless
  • Substance abusers
  • The disabled
  • The unskilled
  • Disconnected youth

These are some of the hardest-to-reach populations in the U.S. right now. They offer donors a chance to set in motion major life ­improvements. In this field it is possible for wise philanthropists to change individual fortunes dramatically—and to alter entire family trees for the better. That is the purpose of this guidebook.

Benefits of a work-filled life

Everyone needs income to survive, but meaningful work is about far more than the paycheck. Work establishes the daily rhythms of life. It dictates when we rise from bed, when we eat our meals, how we schedule our weeks, how we interact with our families. Work provides important structure for our lives.

Work also forms the backbone of much of our social interaction. This has become increasingly true in recent decades as Americans have slid away from many forms of traditional community and civic participation, leaving the workplace as their primary locale of social engagement. Much of our identity now comes from our work. Asked what we “do,” we name our day job, even though that constitutes only a portion of our identity.

Meaningful work is about far more than the paycheck. Work establishes the daily rhythms and structure of life.

“A job doesn’t define who you are, but it does give you a sense of purpose for waking up every day,” says Sandy Schultz, CEO of ­WorkFaith Connection, a work-bolstering organization based in Houston, Texas. “Having a job helps people to see that they are valuable. It’s hugely significant.” Peter Droege, executive director of the drug-rehabilitation program Step 13, says “we’re much more than what we do for a living, but the fact remains that work is ennobling.”

Everyone benefits from honest work—not just the employee who gets paid, not just his company that reaps benefits. Diligent work allows many people to profit from the services, products, ideas, or advancements produced. Good work is built around solving the problems of others and reaping a reward for doing so, and thus helps society as a whole.

For many, work is a cause beyond themselves, even a life calling. This can be as true for simple jobs as for complex ones. Work gives everyone a chance to put a proud personal stamp on the world.

When they are separated from work, the poor lose more than just money for food, shelter, and clothing. They suffer deficits of purpose, emotional well-being, and social connection. They get cut off from clearly defined goals and aspirations. They lose a prime means of generating and feeling respect from others. These things can’t be compensated for by government income transfers or charitable gifts. This itch must be scratched by devoting oneself to productive, fulfilling labor.

A premise of this guidebook is that human beings are most satisfied when they enjoy the material, emotional, and spiritual fruits of their own toil. Philanthropists can play a key role in making this happen.

Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert explore this issue in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself. Their experience is in international Christian missions in underdeveloped nations, but their insights apply to poor populations in the U.S. as well. One of the major dilemmas exposed by Corbett and Fikkert is the disconnect between what givers believe poor people need and what poor people themselves actually want. Wealthy observers, they note, “describe poverty differently than the poor in low-income countries do,” tending “to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.” Meanwhile, poor people

tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms.... Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.… This mismatch between many outsiders’ perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences for poverty-alleviation efforts.

The advantage of work is that it provides an antidote both to poverty and to depression. In addition to yielding goods, it opens broad avenues to participation and meaning.

Carla Javits, executive director of the San Francisco-based ­venture-philanthropy fund REDF, has encountered in her own work the mix of physical and psychological needs of the jobless. REDF specializes in creating and supporting businesses that employ the most difficult-to-reach populations, such as the homeless and drug addicts. She told us:

When you ask the people we’re helping why they are so excited to have a job, you’d think the first thing they would say is the paycheck—because we’re talking about people who are extremely low-income. Yet they almost never give that as their first answer. It’s almost always dignity, self-respect, participation, team, and community. It’s really profound to think of that.

In the United States, we believe in work. We believe in the power of work. If you’re left out of that, you feel like you’re left out of the whole society. Many people who have fallen out of mainstream society come to a moment in their life when they’re ready to make major personal changes to get back in and be part of that American dream. A job is the ticket back in: It’s your on-ramp back into the mainstream of society.

Unfortunately, after you’ve been withdrawn from work for a while, it can sometimes be really tough to find a path to return.

Although they emphasize the importance of material relief, Corbett and Fikkert identify changed attitudes as the surest path to poverty reduction, beginning with those who wish to help. Proper thinking requires “more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to being what God created them to be.”

The struggle for donors is this: Too many poverty-alleviation efforts provide material relief to the exclusion of other goals. Even charitable organizations that place the impoverished in jobs sometimes end up providing only stopgap help, because broader life changes are not achieved. An impossible family situation, creditors on your back, a lack of reliable transportation, no connection to social capital, few educational resources, lack of role models, lack of financial knowledge, a negative worldview—addressing these at the same time one works will make success much more likely. Too many of the poor and impoverished are in survival mode rather than advancement mode. A charitable support structure can help solve or soften concerns that could otherwise get in the way of finding and holding a job.

Paradoxically, opportunities to give and serve others are another thing often missing from the life of the poor. Feeling valuable to fellow human beings is a fundamental part of flourishing. Lots of research shows that givers are the happiest people on the planet. Work provides many chances to contribute and be a blessing to others.

In the end, work helps to create an intangible quality of character that few other activities can: self respect. Philanthropist and entrepreneur David Weekley identifies that as one of the distinguishing aspects of good work. “From what I’ve seen, giving people a hand up rather than a handout is the only way to create self respect and permanent improvement in people’s lives, rather than temporary improvement,” he told us in an interview. “That’s what I feel called to do: help folks, over the ­long-term, change their lives.”

Why donors should care about work

In his book From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor, economist Lawrence Mead notes that 12 percent of the U.S. population was classified as impoverished in 2009, and the poverty rate for ­non-working persons stood at 23 percent. Yet for people who put in any work at all during the year, the poverty rate was 7 percent, and for those who worked at least a 35-hour workweek for 50 weeks of the year—at any job—the poverty rate was just 3 percent.

The power of work can be seen internationally as well, especially when whole communities transition to productive labor. Peter Greer, CEO of Hope International, outlines the relevant numbers in his book Stop Helping Us! A Call to Compassionately Move Beyond Charity:

Between 1981 and 2005...the number of people living in extreme poverty ($1.25 or less per day) decreased from 52 percent to 26 percent. In one generation, poverty has been cut in half, not through charity but through job creation.... For example, in 1981, 84 percent of China’s population lived below the poverty line...by 2005, the percentage dropped to 25 percent. During this timeframe, China’s GDP increased tenfold. Brazil and India followed the same path...the changes being powered by economic growth.

A chief differentiation between people who thrive and those who struggle is that successful people are active workers. It doesn’t happen instantly. But those who successfully attach themselves to work, develop a career path, and seek to improve their skills and knowledge base, almost always end their lives with economic success.

In emphasizing the long-term importance of work, it’s not our intention to dismiss or ignore charity work that provides immediate material relief to the poor—such as food pantries, rescue missions, and homeless shelters. After all, it’s hard to get a stable job when you’re hungry and don’t know where you will sleep that night. Many donors consider it a religious or moral imperative to supply relief in the face of sharp need.

“But it’s not either/or—teach a man to fish or give a man a fish,” says Hugh Whelchel, director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. “If you try to teach a man to fish and he’s starving, then he’s going to eat the bait. So there has got to be this immediate relief where we help people get stabilized. But that’s got to be followed very quickly by a way to help him begin to use the gifts and opportunities that God has given him to provide for himself.”

For people who worked at least a 35-hour workweek for 50 weeks of the year—at any job—the poverty rate was just 3 percent.

The hundreds of thousands of meals that charitable food pantries and soup kitchens serve to the homeless and impoverished each day are essential work. But the premise of this book is that a fuller approach is necessary, adding a lasting focus on lifting the impoverished into ­self-production, gradual accumulation of wealth, and personal security.

Here are three more reasons, pragmatic ones, why donors should get involved in the long-term work of helping the dependent find jobs:

  • Collective prosperity
    A larger pool of useful workers benefits society as a whole. Workers generate value, pay taxes, they support themselves rather than hanging on others, their families are healthier, they are less prone to crime.
  • Building freedom
    People with jobs can more easily choose where they live, what they eat, how they school their children, and so forth. They can exercise freedom in practice, not just in theory, in our land of liberty.
  • Lasting results
    People with unsuccessful work histories become mired in generational poverty, something much worse than the temporary misfortunes that all of us are at risk of occasionally experiencing. Transforming a dependent person into a worker can transform a whole family line for the better.

Dan Rose helped design the Kindle, became a Facebook vice president, then became interested in philanthropy in 2011. He helps fund and serves on the board of directors of REDF, one of the leading charities guiding economic strugglers into work they can be proud of. “The social chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” he says, which is why “we need to help lift people up. A job is the single most important thing for someone to become a productive member of society. It’s much more than just an income: it’s a sense of pride, a sense of contributing. A sense of being a father or a mother who your kids can look up to and admire. All of those things come with having a job.”

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