The rise of Kramer and George are in fact part of a much larger phenomenon: the erosion of our culture of work. In America, we no longer extol hard work the way we used to. As a result, we no longer castigate laziness as we once did. Nor do we view with shame those who live off of handouts. We have not (yet) become a nation of slackers, mooches, and aisle gratis loafers, but America is no longer “the Land of Labour” where “everyone works and work leads to everything.”
Meanwhile, hip-hop and gangsta rap have overtaken the blues as the premier form of black American music (to say nothing of how deeply they have penetrated the mainstream). Working has never been easy, but it is one thing to wail about having to “work for the man” and putting in your “nine to five” and quite another to dismiss workers as chumps and celebrate the lifestyle of the hustler and the thug.
Public opinion has also become much more tolerant of idleness. When Tocqueville travelled through America in the 1830s, he was struck by the very strong prejudice in favor of work: “In America I sometimes met rich young people, enemies by temperament of every painful effort, who had been forced to take up a profession. Their nature and their fortune permitted them to remain idle; public opinion imperiously forbade it to them, and they had to obey.”
Public opinion imperiously forbids many things today, including smoking and not recycling, but not working is most definitely not one of them. Nor is living off of handouts. Any stigma against dependence is long gone. In 1837, Francis Grund, a German immigrant to the U.S., described the self-reliant spirit in his adopted land:
The math is fairly simple: Little work equals little income, which equals poverty
I have never known a native American to ask for charity. No country in the world has such a small number of persons supported at the public expense…. An American, embarrassed by his pecuniary circumstances, can hardly be prevailed upon to ask or accept the assistance of his own relations; and will, in many instances, scorn to have recourse to his own parents.
Today, by contrast, one in seven Americans is on food stamps, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture runs aggressive ad campaigns, in both English and Spanish, encouraging more people to sign up for the program.
All of this takes a toll on our once-robust culture of work. As a result, fewer people work, regardless of how the economy is doing. In his recent book chronicling the erosion of our founding virtues, Charles Murray cites the eightfold increase since 1960 in the percentage of people who qualify for federal disability benefits. These people are supposedly unable to work, but this huge increase has occurred despite great advances in medical care and in spite of technological innovations that have made work easier and the workplace safer. What the numbers reveal, in other words, is “an increase in the number of people seeking to get benefits who aren’t really unable to work.”
For every movie that celebrates hard work and dedication, Hollywood churns out dozens featuring irresponsible, dim-witted, unshaven bumblers
Of those who do work, many do not put in that many hours. Lack of parental work, for example, is one of the major causes of child poverty. As Rector and Sheffield explain:
Even in good economic times, the average poor family with children has only 800 hours of total parental work per year-the equivalent of one adult working 16 hours per week. If the amount of work performed by poor families with children was increased to the equivalent of one adult working full time throughout the year, the poverty rate among these families would drop by two-thirds.