Work is the surest route out of Poverty

“Work keeps a bay three great evils: Boredom, Vice and Need.”  Voltaire, 1759

“Work is the surest route out of poverty”   Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of England

Britain is enacting a worked based welfare system, reversing a dole based system reaching back to the 1600’s and Queen Elisabeth I.  In 18th and 19th Centuries Benjamin Franklin and Alexis de Tocqueville were very critical of the English system of public charity, which harmed the recipient and society.

In 1766, Franklin wrote in The London Chronicle:   I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it …

Franklin continued:  There is no country (England) in the world where so many provisions are established for them; … together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor.

Franklin noticed the harmful results: I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent. The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependance on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty. Repeal that law, and you will soon see a change in their manners.

Finally two hundred and fifty years later, England is embracing programs advancing work.  Recently, Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, essentially agreed with Franklin as reported by Andrew Holt in Charity Times.

“Today the Government is announcing the most radical overhaul of our welfare system since its inception, driven by a single, overriding principle: the purpose of welfare is to help people into work.

“Work is the surest route out of poverty; it structures lives; unlocks potential; builds confidence; forges friendships; cements communities; provides mental well-being.

“Across the country households will be better off. Not just better off because they’ve crossed a notional poverty line. Better off because they will have the chance of a better life for themselves, and a better life for their children. As the saying goes, a hand up, not a hand out.”

 Few, if any, in Britain will appreciate the enormous contributions to the philosophy and the benefits of work emblazoned by Americans Dick Wendt and Charles Hobbs.

In the 1960’s Hobbs appalled by America’s slide into welfare dependency began volunteering assistance to single mothers in Alabama.  Appreciating Hobbs’ dedication to the benefits of work, Ronald Reagan selected Hobbs to reform welfare in California and later in Washington, D.C.

In 1988, Hobbs was Reagan’s Domestic Policy Advisor and, negotiating with Senator Moynihan, secured the right for states to experiment with work-based welfare programs.  Immediately following, Hobbs successfully assisted Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin with worked-oriented programs.

Dick Wendt was a unique entrepreneur.  In 1960, Wendt founded JELD-WEN, Inc.  in Klamath Falls, Oregon.  Over the years, JELD-WEN has become the largest manufacturer of doors and windows in the world.

 Wendt’s philosophical mission was to provide work for everyone needing or desiring work.  In 1976, Wendt dedicated his vacation time to reforming America’s public assistance system. 

Similar to Franklin and Voltaire, Wendt recognized that all people have talent and work truly keeps the three great evils at bay: boredom, vice and need.  Paying people not to work was harmful to recipients, their families, communities and the nation.  Wendt proposed converting unemployment funds, Food Stamps and welfare payment into a fund that provided work for everyone.  If a person could not obtain employment, government would subsidize work with a real employer for a short period of time. 

Universally, academics, bureaucrats and politicians associated with public assistance vociferously opposed a work based system and inferred Wendt’s proposal was disingenuous and callous.

Wendt persevered and, failing to find political support, paid for a ballot initiative to test his plan in six Oregon counties.  Oregon voters approved.  Subsequently, Wendt and Hobbs joined forces.  Hobbs’ knowledge of the welfare bureaucracy and politics melded perfectly with Wendt’s mission of employment for everyone.  Despite the approval by the Oregon voters, permission to test the program had to be sought from D.C. 

After three years of refusal, the Clinton administration grudgingly gave consent.   Immediately, Wendt and Hobbs assisted state programs throughout America and most notably in Oregon, Mississippi, and Wisconsin.  Successful, the Wendt and Hobbs effort was a major reason for the 1996 welfare reform in the United States, which promoted employment.

 Wendt and Hobbs changed America, where the benefits of work are now universally accepted.  Currently, Britain and many other countries are embracing the goodness of work. 

A few political lessons:

  • Positive change occurred because Wendt and Hobbs appreciated the rewards of work, and had the courage to challenge bad policies and the welfare industry – government bureaucrats, academics and media mavens. 
  • Hobbs and President Reagan attempted reform in California and Washington, D.C., but major reform was started and accomplished because of pressure from outside government.
  • Government seldom makes significant and beneficial changes from within. 
  • Good ideas, perseverance and economic reality forces politicians to enact constructive change, especially now in England.
  • Importantly, for real change to occur the politicians must have the courage and commitment of Wendt and Hobbs, because the bureaucratic and academic recipients of the government’s welfare largess will stridently resist.  Alas, that is how and why England’s dole system lasted for 400 years.

Dick Wendt and Charles Hobbs have since passed, however their philosophy and dedication continues to improve the people of the world.