We want to be wanted and we need to be needed. Call it the human condition or the need for dignity.
Nearly all of us would agree that our lives feel fuller when we’ve done something we believe adds value to our family, our company, or our community. From small, unsolicited acts of kindness to the daily contribution at our place of employment, there is a satisfaction and contentment that comes from creating value.
Yet, what about the millions of Americans that have seen very little opportunity in the land of opportunity?
Despite government subsidies and benefits that might help offset material needs, there are millions of Americans that are craving one of life’s most basic human necessities: the confidence that comes from gainful employment.
Years ago I worked at an organization that helped provide men and women with sustenance and emergency financial assistance. Yet, aside from the homeless or new immigrants, most of the people that came in didn’t need much in the way of food or clothing. It became immediately clear that most low-income Americans don’t have the same basic needs as those in third world or developing nations. I realized that poverty was a more elusive term in America, with the real poverty being found in lack of opportunity and healthy incentive. It is a poverty of dignity.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, refers to this condition as the dignity deficit. He posits that for all America’s material wealth and relative comforts, such as a food, clothing, housing, and electricity, our society and government have not sufficiently found ways to make people needed. Brooks urges government leaders to assess future welfare policy through this paradigm, asking, “Does this policy make people more or less needed—in their families, their communities, and the broader economy?”
America’s desire to help the marginalized and disenfranchised is exceptional. President Lyndon Johnson, well-aware of the significant cultural moment his presidency was a part of, sought to help alleviate the plight of the poor and bring justice to minorities. These endeavors were encapsulated in his Great Society vision.
An integral part of the Great Society initiative was a national War on Poverty. Unfortunately, that war on poverty, which has lasted over fifty years and cost trillions of dollars, has actually led to a slight increase in poverty.
Something isn’t working. And it’s obvious that this isn’t a partisan problem. Americans have faced it under Democrat and Republican administrations. It’s a worldview problem that is rooted in the many presuppositions about humans that policymakers bring to the table. From education to corporate tax rates to SNAP benefits, our lawmakers and bureaucrats are largely assuming that more money, more redistribution, and more food are the answers. In our 21st century context, they are not.
What people need are opportunities to contribute to society. In honest work we find satisfaction, self-respect, and confidence to help others in need.
I have little doubt that when President Lyndon Johnson embarked on our nation’s decades-long War on Poverty, his intentions were noble. Very few can witness human suffering and defeat and not be moved to action. Johnson was touched by the stories of so many Americans that had struggled to make ends meet.
So, he endeavored to change that. Yet, all actions are not created equal, and a good intention will always be most effective when it is married to wisdom. Again, America’s poverty war has enabled the government to meet many material needs in society, so why hasn’t the poverty rate dropped?
Because in all of our central planning and wealth redistribution, we have forgotten that people need to feel needed and want to be wanted. Men and women carry their heads higher when they are able to provide for their children. The unemployed are prouder when they have finally found a steady job that enables them to not only put food on the table, but confidence in their step. The homeless are grateful for the free warm meal and the second-hand coat in the winter, but their self-esteem is lifted when they can finally be the one on the other side of the food distribution line, giving to their community.
You can read Brooks’ article and learn about some of the ways policymakers can address this deficit here.