OpEd: Dignity Through Work

OpEd: Dignity Through Work
Veteran's Memorial Park


OpEd: Dignity Through Work (Chicago, IL) — A famous saying, “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for the day, but if you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat forever,” continues to be relevant in our policy discussions about welfare. Our approach to welfare in this nation often boils down to that same dichotomy – the choice between a welfare fish lunch program, or a culture that trains people how to be self-sufficient with their fishing poles.

The need for more training programs and a work-centered culture is on display every day on the south side of Chicago, where I serve as the pastor of New Beginnings Church. Our neighborhood is one of the nation’s most dangerous neighborhoods, and young men are more likely to join a gang than to complete high school.

In response to the overwhelming needs of this community, our church founded a program, Project H.O.O.D., where we have a singular mission – to help individuals achieve great things and achieve a “hope and a future,” to use the words of Jeremiah in the Bible.

One of our main projects in our community is to help individuals gain employment, not simply for the paycheck, but for the fulfillment that comes from a career. Our goal of transforming the community cannot take root unless we can transform families, and our best chance of transforming families is through laying a foundation that respects work.

As part of our program, we provide jobs training, interview skills, resume-writing workshops, and internships in some of the fastest-growing industries in the nation. We have taken young men from gangs and prison to fulfilling careers in construction, restaurants, and landscaping, to name only a few.

I have witnessed first-hand the joy that comes from the dignity of work. One man in our program, Alfred, had come from a life in gangs, and he was looking for a fresh start. He participated in our jobs training program in construction, and through our corporate partner, was given his first pair of work boots, and a paying job.

The job meant so much more to him than a stream of income; it signified that someone believed in him, and that someone was willing to invest in his future. A company was giving him the chance to participate in society as a working man, contributing back to society.

Those boots, for him, were not footwear; they were his ticket to a new life. Today, Alfred remains free from the clutches of gangs, and is thriving in his construction work.

Work is a powerful thing, and, unlike a welfare check, it provides an individual with a sense of purpose, a pathway to avoid poverty, and an ability to achieve the American Dream. Welfare locks families into the generational cycle of being recipients of government aid; work, on the other hand, can set up multiple generations for a better life.

On Tuesday, the Work and Welfare subcommittee of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee will hold a field hearing in Chicago on the dignity of work. My church and I will be conducting a tour of our Project H.O.O.D. facilities, and giving members of Congress a glimpse into the transformative power that comes through the dignity of work.

When Congress considers welfare, it is imperative to offer life-saving backstops for the truly needy. But those safety-net programs must always be temporary in nature, and given with an eye toward empowering the recipient to engage in work in the future. Two of our nation’s biggest welfare programs, food stamps and Medicaid, have ballooned beyond their original purpose. Now these programs are permanent entitlements, hindering many families from escaping welfare.

I’m grateful that these members of Congress are traveling to Chicago to see, up close and personal, the two diverging paths that result from welfare and work. On the south side of Chicago, we see the welfare trap in too many households, but we also see the hardworking men and women who come through our program. I regularly invite state and federal policymakers to come to the south side of Chicago to see where defeatist welfare programs have stamped out hope for a bright future, and then to tour our facilities to witness the transformative change that dignity through work offers.

Our classes for electrician work, for construction, for restaurant work, and for other professions are always full – and we have waitlists for many of our programs. The reason is simple: individuals in our community want the hope and future, and the strong sense of dignity, that come through work.

My hope is that our welfare policymaking in the future will be shaped with a vision for creating more Alfred success stories, from gang life to construction boots.

OpEd: Dignity Through Work


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