The Bipartisan War on Work

Urban Democrats may be leading the charge, but Republicans, too, have enlisted.


President Joe Biden often talks about how his father used to tell him, "Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It's about your dignity."

It's ironic, because on Biden's watch, a war on work is gathering momentum.

"Working Less Is a Matter of Life and Death" is the headline over a Sunday New York Times staff editorial. It relies on a newly published study by a World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labor Organization team that claims working more than 55 hours a week "led to" 745,000 deaths from stroke and heart disease in 2016.

Neither the editorial nor WHO specify how many deaths might be attributable to people not working enough. That is relevant information. Without it, the public health message becomes "work less," rather than "find the golden mean of moderation between working too much and working too little."

At this point, WHO has zero credibility. Syria, a brutal regime that routinely bombs hospitals and uses chemical weapons, was just elected to the WHO executive board. The WHO is to blame for what The Wall Street Journal calls the "Wuhan Whitewash," a report that downplayed the lab leak hypothesis for the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic and that instead pushed the far-fetched idea that the virus got to China via frozen food.

Yet WHO's war on work is aligned with recent U.S. public policy. Over the past 20 years, the civilian labor force participation rate has plunged to 61.7 percent from 66.9 percent. Some of that is the demographics of baby boomers retiring, but some of it reflects shifting priorities and choices.

Biden's proposed higher tax rates will punish those who work hard. Instead of subsidizing work via the earned income tax credit or incentivizing work via welfare time limits, domestic policy increasingly pays people not to work, through programs such as expanded unemployment and the expanded child tax credit.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently announced it would offer "$500 no-strings-attached monthly payments" to 120 households. The announcement press release said, "Cambridge joins a growing number of direct-cash pilot projects across the country, including Baltimore, MD, Paterson, NJ, Oakland, CA, Madison, WI, and 13 other cities."

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, the group behind the experiments, has a statement of principles that says, "everyone deserves an income floor through a guaranteed income, which is a monthly, cash payment given directly to individuals. It is unconditional, with no strings attached and no work requirements."

This delinking of welfare payments and work requirements threatens to reverse one of the major bipartisan achievements of the 1990s, the welfare reform enacted by former President Bill Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R–Ga.).

Urban Democrats are leading the war on work, but Republicans, too, have enlisted. Former President Donald Trump's administration created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program that provides payments to, among others, parents who stay home to supervise their child's remote learning. In Trump's 2020 State of the Union address, he said, "I was recently proud to sign the law providing new parents in the federal work force paid family leave, serving as a model for the rest of the country. Now I call on the Congress to pass the bipartisan Advancing Support for Working Families Act, extending family leave to mothers and fathers all across our nation."

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article by Sohrab Ahmari adapted from Ahmari's new book "The Unbroken Thread." Ahmari, a Catholic and the editor of the conservative New York Post, appreciatively quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's words about the Sabbath: "He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil."

I'm an admirer of the Sabbath and of Heschel, but without commerce or toil on the other six days, the Sabbath is just another vacation day, not special at all. The Bible talks about observing the Sabbath, but it also talks about working the other six days. Psalm 128 says people who eat from the work of their own hands are happy.

It's great that Biden can, by quoting his father, convey that, as the president put it May 18 in Michigan, a job is "about respect. It's about your place in the community." Republicans have been intermittently good at explaining how Democratic tax increases erode incentives to work, but they haven't quite risen to the task of explaining the war on work as an attack on basic American values like industry, upward mobility, self-reliance, human dignity, earned success, and the pursuit of happiness. Gingrich used to frame the choice as "food stamps versus paychecks," which is stark, but getting close.

Biden's father died in 2002. For America to thrive in the decades ahead, it will need more messengers, in both parties, who can articulate why a job beats "no-strings attached" cash payments, family leave, or extended unemployment. Never mind WHO and the Times editorialists: The real threat the country faces isn't overwork, it's the rising percentage of Americans who aren't working at all.