The vital importance of honest work

Scott McIntosh changed light bulbs as part of Denver’s Day Works.
RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post/AP
Scott McIntosh changed light bulbs as part of Denver’s Day Works.

Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, and a long line of social scientists would all agree on this much: People are better off when they’re working than when they’re not working. Keeping busy is healthier, for individuals and for society, than being idle.

But in 2018, we don’t just drum up jobs — not even when people really need them. That’s why the news out of Denver this month caused such a stir. Mayor Michael Hancock recently announced an expansion of Denver Day Works, a year-old pilot that hired 284 homeless residents for landscaping duties, public-works crews, and other assignments. More than 100 participants got regular jobs.

Lots of places, including in Boston, have programs that try to match disadvantaged workers with employers, and the Denver initiative itself is modeled after a similar program by the city of Albuquerque. Still, the logic behind Denver Day Works is refreshingly, bracingly straightforward: There are things that need doing, and there are people who need something to do — so what are we waiting for?


The initiative isn’t just a small-scale throwback to the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration. It’s also an acknowledgement that there’s an urgent need to draw more people back from the margins, and that governments could be trying harder to make that happen.

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The best social program, Reagan famously argued, is a job. A number of states, such as Kentucky, are contemplating work rules for Medicaid in the hope of pushing more people into the labor force. But public policy hasn’t quite come to grips with how hard it is for millions of Americans — and not just homeless people — to find jobs and stay employed in a rapidly changing economy.

Economist Nicholas Eberstadt, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has observed that the percentage of men of prime working age who were employed in 2015 — the year the official jobless rate dipped below 5 percent — was lower than in 1940, near the end of the Great Depression. He’s estimated that 7 million men ages 25 to 54 are no longer even looking for work. (It’s no wonder authorities in Denver and elsewhere are seeking inspiration in the Roosevelt era.)

At one time, even unskilled workers could pick up gigs as farm hands or stevedores, but many jobs involving routine tasks have been automated. Meanwhile, even skilled workers need to find somebody who’s willing to hire them. But risk-minimizing employers have a number of conditions that all but disqualify an applicant from being hired.

Among them is a felony conviction — a huge obstacle to employment in a country with vastly more ex-inmates than other Western nations. Nearly one-third of working-age adults have a criminal record of some sort; 3 percent of Americans have served time in prison. (A decade after a brutal recession, with the unemployment rate down near 4 percent, labor markets have finally been tight enough for long enough that more companies are starting to consider hiring ex-felons.)


Meanwhile, companies routinely reject applicants on other grounds. Older applicants are rejected for lack of “culture fit.” Others lose opportunities for more amorphous reasons: They can’t sit still, they don’t get along with others.

This sounds flippant to say, but even people who grate on their coworkers need to find some way to make a living. Moreover, most people — especially those who’ve been cut off from the world — benefit from the structure that work provides. “One of the things that employment does,” says Philip Mangano of the American Roundtable to Abolish Homelessness, “is that it puts you in a social context. You invite someone to your house, they invite you to their house. You find someone to go to the movies with. You develop friendships when you’re employed.”

For people who are profoundly alienated from the economy, a small initiative like Denver Day Works only goes so far. Of the 110 Denverites who found regular jobs via the program, the Denver Post reported, barely half kept them for longer than 90 days. Even when it works, it remains a boutique program — to borrow a description from Mangano, a veteran Massachusetts advocate who was George W. Bush’s homelessness czar — and it might not scale up.

Finally, if state and local officials feel inspired to feel take Denver’s lead, and create a bunch of public jobs, they might also consider rolling back occupational licensing rules and land-use laws that stifle blue-collar employment.

Far from blindly imitating Denver, though, the trend may be in the opposite direction. On the right, the long decline in labor force participation is fueling a growing movement against Medicaid, food stamps, disability insurance, and other forms of assistance that let people scrape by without jobs. But when millions of people are all in the same predicament, it can’t be just a failure of individual gumption.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.