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Men Not at Work

Social problems are unlikely to be solved with carrots alone.

4:19 PM, May 11, 2011 • By JIM PREVOR
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Work is what one does because one  must. But why is it that 20 percent of the male workforce feels that they don’t have to work?

It is always the case that those who don’t want to work will point to the mismatch between the work available and their skills. Indeed, many of the proposals Brooks mentions, such as expanding community colleges or paying people unemployment while they start businesses, are just another way of helping people avoid the necessity of taking the jobs that might actually be available.

For most people the best way to acquire the skills and habits that successful labor force participation demands is not, in fact, to take courses at a community college. It is to take a job – a job that is likely going to be unpleasant in many ways and only minimally remunerative. Fortunately, in America, that is not the end of the story, and sticking with that tough job opens the door to better jobs and a better life.

In the end, Brooks’s notion that solving this problem requires programs and will cost money is based on an unwritten assumption that society can only use carrots, when, in fact, the real issue is a lack of sticks.

If there is an option for people to get disability when they are not actually disabled, people will take it. If they get health care through Medicaid, eat with food stamps and live in subsidized housing, whether it’s their own or a girlfriend’s or mother’s, people will take it. After all, the alternative is not to make millions and have a house in the Hamptons; the alternative is lots of hard unpleasant work.

Solving this problem does not mean launching new programs or spending more money. It actually means spending less. It means limiting the time people can collect unemployment; it means restricting the ability of people to collect disability; it means that one doesn’t have medical insurance if one isn’t willing to work.

It is nice to think we can change individual motivations solely with carrots; the reality is that sticks have their place as well. There’s a reason why social welfare programs only grow over time – and almost never contract. There’s a reason folks commonly, over time, become more dependent on social welfare programs.  

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