The Common Good
July-August 1997

Getting What We Work For

by Jesse C. Jones | July-August 1997

I’M WRITING IN response to "Why Work?" by
Julie Polter (January-February 1997). Welfare’s
impoverished recipients are not its only dependents.

I’M WRITING IN response to "Why Work?" by Julie Polter (January-February 1997). Welfare’s impoverished recipients are not its only dependents. Our political, economic, social, and religious institutions have depended on the welfare state to ameliorate, perhaps to mask, the ravages of our consumer economies. Welfare reform demands that we confront anew a societal responsibility—if work is a condition of subsistence, from where will the jobs come?

We need no proof that we love to work. The thrill of conquest drives commerce more surely than our lust for the toys our earnings buy. We value ourselves and others by work, and those who cannot, whether it is the stranger’s child in the inner city or our own parents, are burdens we tolerate impatiently.

As welfare reform forces us to consider whether full employment is attainable or even a desirable goal, we must all confront, as Polter does, the value of our own labors. Our biblical tradition defined labor as the need to toil to produce subsistence from the earth. But as our economies have shifted from growing food to making widgets to making deals, we see corporate realities "undermine and fragment our understanding of who[m] and what our work is for," as Polter writes.

We can produce luxury automobiles but not reliable transportation for inner-city residents. We can spend millions to promote name recognition of soft drinks and beers, but we cannot provide affordable housing to all. We can produce blockbuster movies and pay sports figures and entertainers enormous amounts of money, but we cannot provide our children a nurturing environment.

If we are to take value from our work, we must labor in a just economy.

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