So wrote a Polish aristocrat (a kind latter-day Tocqueville who went on to win a Nobel Prize for literature) after he visited the United States of America in 1876. Henryk Sienkiewicz travelled widely across our country for several years, all the while sending dispatches back to Polish newspapers about what he observed in this rising land. He was particularly struck by America’s willingness to labor and exceptionally prescient in predicting the great success that powerful work habits would eventually bring the young nation.
Sienkiewicz was also struck by American generosity and voluntary philanthropy. “A man who is old and infirm, a woman, or a child, receives more assistance in the United States than anywhere else,” he observed. Yet he noted that “a healthy young man will almost invariably hear one piece of advice: ‘Help yourself!’ And if he does not know how to follow this advice, he may even die of starvation.” Along with the powerful consensus in support of charity for the needy, there was an equally powerful American consensus that the way to hasten an able-bodied person toward a thriving existence was to lead, or push, him into energetic work.
In 2015, the American belief in work is still strong and still the source of our great successes. But there are also cracks. Whole subpopulations now exhibit a weak attachment to self-supporting labor. Researchers Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow of the liberal Brookings Institution have identified a “work gap” that puts certain families in peril. Among poor Americans, Sawhill and Karpilow report, “some households lack an employed member, a majority lack two earners, and a high proportion work very few hours even when the economy is operating at full employment.”
In other words, we now have weak links in the chain of work that has long pulled Americans out of neediness and into success. Lori Sanders and Eli Lehrer of Washington’s R Street Institute observe that any sensible “anti-poverty agenda today must begin with work—which presupposes employability, habits of courtesy, responsibility, punctuality, honesty, and so on. Research shows overwhelmingly that work is central to escaping poverty. This is true not only for the obvious reasons—the wages and benefits—but also for the role work plays in cultivating healthy lifestyles, helping individuals achieve self-respect, feel happier, set an example for younger generations.”
Government agencies have a very checkered history when it comes to helping people who have struggled with work develop the habits and talents to do better. Statistically, most government job-training programs are quite unimpressive. There are, however, many charitable programs that have demonstrated real success at leading unskilled persons, single mothers, inexperienced minorities, released prisoners, former addicts, and other at-risk populations into lasting, transformative employment.
This book was written to help donors find those successful models and strategies. It is addressed to generous American leaders who want to lift more of our poor and distressed into mainstream success. Its purpose is to point them to the most effective work-supporting charities and approaches and to encourage them to put their shoulders to the wheel. It will be followed up next year by a second guidebook focused on what donors can do to support vocational and technical education—a field that is sometimes neglected in the push for college degrees, though it may be the most effective way for many strugglers to step onto the ladder of upward mobility (especially since employers now struggle to fill many vocational trades).
Lack of opportunity and generational progress at the bottom of our socioeconomic pyramid are now matters of concern for many Americans. The best available antidote is to help those who are lagging become effective workers. Because—as determined philanthropists in many places and all sectors have discovered—work works when it comes to curing deprivation, softening inequality, and erasing unhappiness.
President, The Philanthropy Roundtable
Vice president, Publications
Director, Economic Opportunity Programs