The Dignity of Work

IN the high-flying debate over welfare reform, one bit of rhetoric deserves to be shot down - the so-called ``dead-end job.''

A dead-end job awaits welfare recipients who, under President Clinton's plan, would be forced off the dole after two years - or so critics of the plan claim.

Barbara Ransby, a history professor at DePaul University in Chicago, dismisses the public-sector work that Clinton wants to offer welfare recipients who cannot find private-sector jobs. ``These hundreds of thousands of low-paying, temporary, dead-end jobs are no substitute for real employment opportunities,'' she writes.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) of California, herself a former welfare recipient, says she does not wish to be training welfare recipients ``for minimum-wage, dead-end jobs that won't get them off of welfare anyway.''

One cannot help but wonder: Just what jobs contemplated by the president's plan are ``dead end?'' Do people now holding such jobs view them that way? What jobs do the Clinton plan's critics think are worthy of being offered to welfare recipients? What will be the impact on nonwelfare recipients seeking those same jobs?

Those questions aside, the term ``dead end'' rankles because it demeans work. As policymakers debate welfare, let them also celebrate the virtue of work - all work.

Self-respect comes from performing a task so well that someone gladly pays the worker a wage and looks forward to employing him or her further. Work provides an occasion to acquire useful knowledge, not only trade skills but how to ``fit in'' to a job environment.

Any job has the potential to be a stepping stone, if not a launching pad, to more-rewarding work. The opportunity derives not from the task itself, but from how it is performed. A worker who demonstrates the qualities of punctuality, honesty, industry, and enthusiasm will not go unrewarded, although he or she may need to claim the reward by taking the initiative to find a new employer.

However Congress restructures welfare, it should not devalue the dignity of work. Instead, it should tackle the dead-end thinking that results in defeatism and do-it-for-me-ism. Along with other reforms, a new welfare program should teach winning attitudes. People with these are likely to find that the ``help wanted'' sign is out.

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