“He that will not work shall not eat (except by sickness he be disabled),” Captain John Smith told the 1609 Jamestown colonists. It wasn’t a new idea, in fact it dates back to at least the first century when the Apostle Paul wrote the church in Thessalonica, “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.”
Our nation was founded on the concept that we are sturdy, hardworking people, responsible for ourselves but also to our neighbors. We have long been willing to help those who could not help themselves and in that spirit of compassion allowed government programs to provide that help, especially during The Great Depression.
We grew increasingly concerned that some who were able to help themselves had become too dependent on government assistance. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed welfare to work legislation into law. Workfare, as it was called, proclaimed that those who were able had to work to continue what had become commonly known as welfare. Many predicted that poverty and hunger would soar as people left the welfare rolls, but just the opposite happened. The welfare rolls dropped from 5 to 2 million, largely among those who had never been married.
There is nothing wrong with asking those in the wagon who can, to get out and help pull with the rest of us, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm explained. There is strong evidence that work is essential in helping establish a person’s sense of self worth and dignity. We cannot allow our compassion and generosity to move us to lessen the requirements or qualifications, or attempt to justify why some aren’t working. But we must also avoid the trap of calling those who receive these benefits worthless or lazy, as some have done.
Workfare was a great concept and worked pretty well for more than 20 years but the Great Recession of 2008 knocked the props from under this success story. Unemployment soared and those who could not find work increasingly turned to government help. More than 40 states, including North Carolina, received waivers from the requirement that food stamp recipients must work, volunteer or be enrolled in job training programs in order to receive more than three months of benefits in a three-year period.
The Department of Health and Human Services has announced our state will begin restoring the work requirement in counties over the next six months, affecting more than 100,000 current recipients. Maine reinstated these work provisions last year and the number of recipients dropped from 12,000 to 2,500.
If we truly want to help people off “the public dole” and onto a road of self-sufficiency our legislature must help by restoring the earned income tax credit they eliminated several years ago. This is often the difference between making it or not to lower income citizens.
We can debate what constitutes an “able” person or even what qualifies as work, but we strongly support the principle that those who can work should do so. We also recognize that some need help in the transition to self-sufficiency and North Carolina would be an uncaring state if we were not willing to provide that help.
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of N.C. Spin