- Saturday, August 26, 2023

A version of this story appeared in the On Background newsletter from The Washington Times. Click here to receive On Background delivered directly to your inbox each Friday.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation making Labor Day a federal holiday, in so doing, recognizing that hard work is an essential part of the American dream.

Today, an increasing number of young Americans dream of only working enough to get by, if at all. In 2021, 36% of men ages 18 to 24 were still living at home, not a hopeful sign for Generation Z taking personal responsibility.

Help wanted signs are everywhere. But fewer and fewer are stepping up to the plate.

The Labor Force Participation Rate – the percentage of able-bodied workers who are either employed or looking for work — is at a near 25-year low. The LFPR has gone from 67.3% in early 2000 to 62.6% in May of this year.

That means over 37% of able-bodied Americans — who are neither students, retired, nor caring for children at home — have voluntarily dropped out of the workforce. That’s millions of potential workers who, for whatever reason, have chosen a life of idleness.

The left encourages indolence with handouts and by cultivating an entitlement mentality.

Pennsylvania State Representative Roni Green – a Democrat, as if you couldn’t guess — has announced that she’ll introduce legislation for a 32-hour work week for employers of more than 500, without a reduction in pay.

This is the same as taking money out of the pockets of employers and putting it in the pockets of employees. But when did legalized theft ever stop the party of plunder?

Under President Biden, whose administration is committed to expanding the dole, the welfare state has metastasized.

Food Stamp enrollment is at a historic high, with 41.2 million currently participating – 12.5% of the total population and 4.5 million more than at the start of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Besides the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps by another name), there’s unemployment insurance, Medicaid, housing vouchers, child-care payments and energy subsidies. Most are needs-based, thus disincentivizing work.

But the problem goes much deeper.

Work has a moral dimension. The way you view work reflects the way you view life. If life has no meaning for you, neither will work.

The Bible, the foundation of Western Civilization, has much to say about work.

In Genesis, we are admonished, “By the sweat of your brow will you eat your food.” In his Epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul charged, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” A Jewish proverb says the same.

The earliest colonists embraced what came to be called the Protestant work ethic. The Puritans were famous for their belief in the redemptive quality of labor. In the Jamestown colony, John Smith inveighed against “idleness and sloth.” “For the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain a hundred and fifty idle loiterers.”

A life of leisure provides opportunities for all sorts of mischief – online gambling, substance abuse, sexting and crime. How many of the George Floyd rioters were gainfully employed? Imagine someone going to his supervisor and asking for time off to take part in looting a high-end fashion store.

Work should not be viewed in isolation.

We work because we recognize our responsibility to our family, our community and our nation. We want to take pride in ourselves and set an example for our children.

In a 2022 commentary, American Enterprise Institute economist Nicholas Eberstadt notes that in the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown, “seven million men of prime working age are neither working nor looking for work.” The LFPR was actually higher in 1940, with 15% unemployment.

Mr. Eberstadt explains that the flight from work “has meant slower economic growth for the country, wider income and wealth gaps, more dependence on government welfare programs, more pressure on fragile families, loss social mobility, less involvement in society, and a lot more deaths of despair.”

The left’s attitude to work is consistent with its Marxist agenda. It wants to continually expand the dependent class. Simultaneously, it punishes hard work with confiscatory taxes and by stigmatizing the most productive as despoilers of the planet and exploiters of the underclass.

Now, it looks like it’s trying to engineer a new COVID-19 lockdown to keep more at home and necessitate increased welfare spending — the opposite of what Grover Cleveland, the last conservative Democrat in the White House, had in mind.

Let’s remember what Labor Day is about – not another three-day weekend but celebrating the liberating nature of work, even as we take a day off from it.

• Don Feder is a columnist with The Washington Times.

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