‘Equality’ and the motivation to do hard work

If people’s expectations have changed so fundamentally that they think of work as only one option, what does it say about us as a country?


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Two recent events made me start thinking about some hard questions that New Hampshire and the United States need to face.

Stopped at a red light at the top of the hill near Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, I was behind a car that had all manner of liberal candidates’ bumper stickers and one that caught my eye. It said, “I Love (red heart) Equality.”

Instantly, I thought that this bumper sticker, like most short slogans, was curious and perhaps dumb. If it meant racial, ethnic, gender or age equality, it was fine. If it meant equality of opportunity, it was fine. But if it meant, as I suspected, financial equality, it was dumb. On its face, you could not tell what it meant.

Maybe I would not have been so sensitive about the sticker if it had not been for another conversation of which I was a part shortly before.

In a meeting with a prominent conservative/moderate officeholder and the head of one of New Hampshire’s largest social service agencies, I was struck by their discussion of common issues facing both of them in different contexts. Each had responsibility for providing benefits to people who otherwise would fall through the cracks of society and lack food, shelter or basic health care. Both were sympathetic to the plight of those they serve. Both had limited resources with which to fight against the conditions they sought to avoid.

The governmental leader expressed frustrations he had trying to accomplish his goals. Stories about people going to soup kitchens when they could afford food, out-of-staters going to food distribution centers in their reasonably new automobiles, stories about people using homeless shelters to obtain or traffic in drugs and other issues bothered him.

He recounted a story about classes for unwed mothers that he visited, only to find young women with their second and third child, notwithstanding the training they had on family planning and parenting, ostensibly because each child received additional state assistance.

The head of the social service agency, equally frustrated, recounted stories about people in training programs he supervised who, when they graduated, were offered jobs at low but above minimum wage pay. Some took them, recognizing that they could go up the career ladder from and own their own business someday. However, many, if not most, did not accept the opportunity because governmental or social programs available to them would provide equal or slightly higher compensation at the outset.

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All this raised a number of difficult questions that we discussed but did not answer, not knowing the answers.

The first question raised by the governmental leader and echoed by this writer was why it was that when any governmental leader or candidate raised these issues to try to question the structure of present programs (as opposed to the necessity for them), that leader is accused of being “heartless,” “cruel,” “cheap” or “immoral.”

If those in public office or seeking public office are to be bashed by such language, meaningful discussion is difficult to have, since such accusations are the political equivalent of throwing a hand grenade into a room and watching everyone scatter.

Other hard questions that were raised from this discussion were, what has happened in a society where people would rather have instant compensation at a slightly higher level than they could make through hard work?

What have we designed in the system that allows such a situation, or is it the nature of the people in the system and not the system itself?

If people’s expectations have changed so fundamentally that they think of work as only one option, what does it say about us as a country?

Even more difficult questions that remained unanswered were whether the motivation level differs in different segments of society. Without any answer, or without suggesting an answer, questions included whether different people from different economic groups, ethnic groups, nationalities or cultures were more or less likely to see government assistance, teen pregnancy or other situations as a viable alternative to work, or even a desirable one. If true, and nothing in this column is meant to suggest that it is, the follow-up question that needed addressing, all agreed, was what do we do to change it?

Interestingly, no one in that room, and probably the vast majority of our fellow citizens, wants to deny benefits to those truly in temporary need. However, if the system has created a situation in which not working and not advancing and not succeeding is an option, no amount of money will solve the problem and, taken to its logical conclusion, we will have some kind of equality, but we will not love it.

Think about it. These hard questions need discussion and not hand grenades.

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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