Members of the working class are not solely the victims of economic change and inadequate public policy. They themselves bear some of the responsibility for the frustration and anger they feel. They have agency. The degree to which our public conversation after the election has implicitly denied this basic fact has been concerning.
As a culture, we feel more comfortable discussing what we want than what we owe. This is generally true. Applied to this specific situation, we want working-class Americans to lead flourishing lives that include meaningful employment, and society as a whole has a moral obligation to work toward making this the case. But working-class Americans have duties as well.
It seems to me that that sense of duty has eroded, along with the cultural norms that support it. Again, this observation applies generally, across our society. But taking the specific case of the working class, its implications are important: Significantly strengthening the cultural norms that if you can work, you should be working, even if the only job you can find pays a mere 65 percent of what you made in your last job; that if you can work, you should be working, even if you have to move a few states away for a good job; that if you can work, you should be providing for your kids; that you have an obligation to contribute and to add your skills and talent and effort to the fabric of your community — a strong recovery of these basic cultural norms would go a long way toward helping the working class lead full and flourishing lives.
How? It used to be the case that an able-bodied man who wasn’t working would feel much more social stigma than he does today. And stigma can push men on the margin into jobs. Once employed, it is much easier for those men to meet their obligations and fulfill their duties: to be good fathers to their children, to be good members of their communities, to put down the videogame and not to use drugs. A virtuous cycle is created, in which adherence to duty, self-mastery and proper choices in each aspect of life reinforces duty, self-mastery and proper choices in the others. And the ensuing benefits to children and community are obvious.
Public policy can help reinvigorate these norms by supporting and encouraging work; and these norms can help make public policy more effective by better predisposing citizens to respond in a productive way to policy incentives.
There are many policy changes we should consider. We should increase earnings subsidies. By subsidizing labor market earnings, policy can help a paycheck go further, and can pull people into participating in the workforce who otherwise would not in light of the wages they can command in today’s economy. Policy should help workers build skills that businesses actually demand and that the market will reward. Apprenticeships are a particularly promising option. Policy should get government out of the way by deregulating the labor market, creating more opportunity. And policies with significant unintended consequences that suppress workforce participation - like disability insurance - need to be reformed.
Regardless of why better policy for the working class is needed - current policy is inadequate, the economy is changing in ways that hit the working class very hard, bad personal decisions on the part of some members of the working class - society has a responsibility to provide on-ramps of opportunity for flourishing lives that include meaningful work.
Some of these policy changes will cost money. That’s OK. Our commitment to the common good requires public action to help the working class lead flourishing lives. The government should spend less money on the rich and the middle class to fund programs that will help to empower working-class Americans.
Better policy is not the only tool we have. Public leadership and public messaging are very important here, as well. Those Americans with significant platforms — not the least of which, the president-elect and the speaker of the House — need to speak clearly not only to the challenges facing the working class, but also to the obligations of the working class to their families, their communities and themselves.
In addition, members of society who practice involved parenting, strong community involvement, strong attachment to the workforce, and stable marriages in their own lives should recover the confidence to “preach what they practice,” as Charles Murray, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, has eloquently put it.
Advancing the common good is a duty we all share. We all have obligations to one another, and to ourselves. We shouldn’t be afraid to say so. In fact, saying so might help us to meet those obligations in and of itself.
Strain is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.