I was born in Kansas, a son of the prairie. I worked alongside my parents and siblings on the family farm.
I learned early the importance of family support and honest, hard work. We were not rich. In fact, our county was among the poorest in the state. In my hometown of Parker, the community would come together to help one another.
We valued our family, our friends and our faith. We loved our neighbors as we loved ourselves. We shared our successes and bore each other’s burdens. Families like ours, like many others, wove the fabric of this nation—instilled in so many of us what is often referred to as “the Midwest work ethic.”
By the law of unintended consequences, the federal government hurt that work ethic when it implemented poverty programs in the early 1960s. They built programs that devalued the concepts of work and undermined strong family structure.
The true cost of these programs is not the trillions of taxpayer dollars spent in the last 50 years. The cost is seen in the diminution of human dignity caused by crippling government dependence. It is seen in programs that penalized strong family structure and which ignored the significance of work.
The war on poverty has failed, trapping people in generational poverty for more than 50 years. As a nation, we’re pouring money into a destructive and failing system that ultimately harms the very lives it aims to serve.
Every man, woman and child possesses inherent dignity, and that self-worth is often best realized in a family and through daily interaction with co-workers.
Pope John Paul II once wrote, “Work is for man and not man for work.” Work is fundamental to the human experience, whereas idleness and dependence on the government degrades human dignity by refusing to acknowledge the unique capacity and potential of every human being.
It is because I believe so deeply that each person deserves a chance at the hope, self-reliance and economic security work inherently brings, that we in Kansas began to reform our welfare programs.
Our premise was simple. Able-bodied adults without dependents would be asked to work or receive job training in order to receive food assistance. These are men and women who are healthy, do not have mental health issues and who are not responsible for the care of another person.
Our objective was to help people out of a gripping cycle of poverty; to help them build a better future for themselves by regaining purpose and hope through work and independence. This is a moral issue, not a financial one. It is one guided by the belief that we have a duty to help our fellow man, to be a blessing to others and share the joy that comes when human resilience and capacity is recognized, and the full worth of each soul is respected.
Americans want to help their neighbors in need, but we recognize that binding people to a government pittance doesn’t accomplish the task. Americans want to help in a way that helps restore personal freedom over the long term. This is why welfare reform passed Congress with bipartisan support in the mid-1990s. I was serving Kansas in the House of Representatives at the time, and the idea of connecting work requirements with food-assistance benefits aligns well with the concept of human dignity and hope for a brighter future.
Over time, states began obtaining waivers that allowed them to eliminate the requirement for able-bodied adults to work in order to continue receiving some benefits; a move that trapped increasing numbers of able-bodied adults on welfare.
Kansas took a different path in 2013, and a new analysis of our welfare-to-work reforms shows higher incomes, more employment and reduced poverty for those leaving welfare and getting a job. To be clear, our goal was to lift Kansans out of poverty and help them obtain the skills to truly change their lives.
The data bear out this truth: Welfare reform improves lives. In a study conducted by the Foundation for Government Accountability, more than 41,000 individuals were followed as they moved off welfare and toward independence. The number of food-stamp enrollees rising out of poverty has tripled. Able-bodied adults saw income rise by 127 percent within one year of leaving food stamps; nearly half were employed within three months of leaving food stamps; and the average income for those working is now above the poverty line.
These are not just facts and figures. The data reflect a mosaic of men and women whose lives were transformed through the dignity of work. Men and women who now have the opportunity to build the basic pieces of a flourishing life: a strong family, rewarding work and education.
Our faith calls us to help those in need. Our goal is to do so in a way that helps people regain personal independence in a meaningful way, rather than perpetuating crippling government dependence.
Without the opportunity to achieve independence through the dignity of work, we cannot fulfill our God-given potential.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the value of work in Hugh Whelchel’s seminal book, How Then Should We Work: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work, now available on Audible!
This article originally appeared in “Faith at Work: Individual Purpose, Flourishing Communities,” a special report released by IFWE and the Washington Times. Reprinted with permission.