While we speculate about universal basic incomes and the impact they would have on society (a discussion that is heating up among social scientists and policy wonks), we may not realize that something like it is actually happening under our noses. Reports have been piling up in the news about the missing men in the American workforce. Historically, it has been the norm for overwhelming numbers of American men to be employed throughout their working-age lives. But in 2013 National Public Radio reported that the official unemployment rate at the time—4.9 percent—masked a disturbing phenomenon among American men of prime working age. As many as ten million of them had dropped out of the workforce. They were neither working nor attempting to find work. As a result, they were not counted in the employment statistics. They were managing by living with their parents or with a spouse or girlfriend and were seemingly satisfied to spend much of their time playing video games or streaming television shows and movies. The NPR report also noted that most of these men were not using their time away from jobs to be primary caregivers for their families. Only five percent of these missing workers were filling that critical domestic role.
A separate, but surely related, fact is that the number of disability payment recipients has continued to grow. Again from NPR, we have a report that the federal government now spends more on disability payments than it does on food stamps and welfare combined. Look at the billboards out on the highways. There appears to be a big business for attorneys who promise clients they can get them on the disability rolls.
None of this is to say that there aren't some former workers who have become permanently injured or disabled from working, but it does seem that the disability category is the frontier of the universal basic income. If you can't get a middle-class income out of a high-school education, there is a reasonable chance you'll end up on disability.
The NPR report concluded:
[D]isability has . . . become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills. But it wasn't supposed to serve this purpose; it's not a retraining program designed to get people back onto their feet. Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work. Fewer than 1 percent of those who were on the federal program for disabled workers at the beginning of 2011 have returned to the workforce since then.
But, in most cases, going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work. Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That's the deal. And it's a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for....
I do not think that unemployed people who survive via family members, friends, and/or government benefits are simply advantage-takers cheating the rest of us out of our money. No, I think they are the ones losing out. They occupy a bad position in society, and many are in a bad way spiritually. It may be tempting to think of them as taking advantage of those who wake up every morning and head off to work, but the truth is that they tend to live a marginal existence.
The reality is that a life without work is not a good life...
I think of Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain series, in which she envisions a future inhabited by "Livers" and "Mules." At first it appears that the Livers (people who just live) are the winners. They don't have to do anything and are taken care of by the hard-working Mules. But the secret is that the Mules, though presented as carrying the burdens of society, are actually the ones who benefit most. They are smart, industrious, and productive. Because they have something to contribute to community life, they are indispensable. And they do not want to be Livers. They fight to remain relevant to the community as people who make a contribution...
These stories show that the good life does not consist in escaping work. It consists in finding meaningful work to do. Work is one of the primary avenues through which we make contributions to the lives of others while simultaneously enriching our own...
The key point here is that we should not be too satisfied with a society that is extremely good at delivering material well-being to people while also fostering tendencies that keep them from leading good lives. Yes, material welfare is a principal reward we want from the economy, but the work by which we contribute to a thriving economy itself constitutes an important part of the reward...
(W)hat people really want out of employment is what Drucker called "social status and function." He said that entitlement programs are like vitamins: they remedy deficiencies, but they don't provide calories.
What did Drucker mean by "social status and function?" He was referring to the things that come with work beyond just the money. People tend to respect work as at least partly constitutive of a life. So having work has a positive effect on the way others perceive you. That's the "status," but what about the function? That is the contribution one makes by working. Yes, you earn money to take care of yourself and your loved ones, but there is something else. By working, you help create something of value that enters the economy of exchange. You have actually put something out into the world that might not have been there but for your time and effort.
To the extent that people are being left out of the world of work—whether through technological innovation, educational limitations, changes in the nature of occupations, disruption in various industries, or even through programs such as the disability fund—both our society as a whole and the individuals who live in it lose something important.
Necessary Spiritual Conditions
What do we need to understand about this economy in which we exchange the products of our work and which is so important to human flourishing? I think it is critically important to reject the idea that the market is simply a secular thing and that we will mess it up by bringing our "extraneous" moral and spiritual frameworks to bear upon it. That is a mistake.
Let me return to Röpke, who noted that the modern market system is not self-sustaining. It draws upon reserves it did not create.
Self-discipline, a sense of justice, honesty, fairness, chivalry, moderation, public spirit, respect for human dignity, firm ethical norms—all of these are things which people must possess before they go to market and compete with each other. These are the indispensable supports which preserve both market and competition from degeneration. Family, church, genuine communities, and tradition are their sources.
Moreover, "the market, competition, and the play of supply and demand do not create these ethical reserves; they presuppose them and consume them."
In other words, there are conditions, spiritual conditions that need to exist for the market to function... We need Christ to help us work rightly and for good reasons. We need our God who helps us to believe in truth and love and to express these things through our work.
Part of what the church can do is to help people develop the spiritual resources they need to contribute to a good economy, an economy where there is an honest exchange of value between the participants. In such an economy, the work that is done has quality. Services performed possess a degree of excellence. Those who pay exchange the fruit of their labor for that offered by their neighbors in the community. We should help people understand that through our work we give glory to God and show love to our neighbor...
(W)e should seek to give value for value. The Bible enjoins the use of honest weights and measures (as expressed in at least eleven places in the Old Testament, five of them in Proverbs) over against the shady, advantage-taking, selfish spirit that can overtake individuals.
I must become the kind of person who chooses to learn my craft or my profession so that I can give something good to others, and others should do the same so they can render something good unto me. We shouldn't seek to take advantage of one another, but to honestly, lovingly, and for mutual benefit create and add value to be exchanged between neighbors, brothers, and sisters...
This is the fundamental nature of the challenge we all face. All of us should think about our work and what we bring to it. We should be serious about that in our spirit. I just used the corporate-sounding language of "adding value," but let me employ something still more straightforward and plain. Lester Dekoster, former library director at Calvin College, wrote a wonderful little volume called Work: The Meaning of Your Life. He wrote that "work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others." Dekoster continued by saying that work puts us in the service of others and "through work that serves others, we also serve God." God weaves all this work into a culture. Dekoster pointedly noted that if all this work stops, so does civilization. It falls, and quickly.
What I love about Dekoster's formulation that "work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others" is that it is so personal. It's about relationship and exchange between people.
The takeaway here is that work is a gift from God, not a curse. Although it can be tiresome and difficult, it is not something we should wish away. The science-fiction dreams of human beings being released from all labor would probably be better seen as nightmares. Being without work is a loss, not a gain, even if a government check softens the blow. We are made to continually be in fellowship with one another by working, creating value, giving, and receiving.
This is who God has made us to be. Work is an important way in which we express love of God and love of our neighbor. Work can help deliver us from a trivial existence based on continual self-amusement and consumption. When the Lord returns, let us be found working—not to make ourselves wealthy and powerful, but to be found faithful as his chosen stewards and as brothers and sisters trying to shine forth for his kingdom and his glory.