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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Toward a Mandatory Work Policy for Men
Lawrence Mead

The Need for Structure

The record suggests strongly that opportunity- oriented measures alone can do little to improve men’s work effort because they fail to confront the oppositional culture described above. Nonworking men must comply with legitimate demands to work, however hard that is, before they can expect to earn the success and respect they crave. They must accept the old-fashioned view that the best expression of male dignity is to do a legitimate job, however lowly, rather than not to do it. Only this can halt the current negative cycle, where resistance begets failure. Only this can begin a positive cycle, where work discipline yields steadier employment and advancement.

How to cause that shift is the great question. The answer suggested by welfare reform is that government must enforce work as well as promote it. Work must become an obligation and not a choice. Programs must link help and hassle. As the editors put it in introducing this volume, government must use both carrots and sticks. New benefits can help, but they must be tied to requirements bearing on the clients. Some chance for success— some respect—must be offered up front. But there must also be demands to work steadily at the jobs offered or available, backed up by some kind of sanction.

Directive Programs
To be effective, programs to increase employment among nonworkers must be directive. They must tell their clients clearly that they are expected to work. Programs framed as incentives or as additions to human capital leave work too much as a choice. Welfare reform mandated work for welfare mothers as a condition of aid. The most successful welfare work programs use case managers to check up on clients to be sure they fulfill their obligations, a style I call paternalist.43 And in the policy areas just mentioned, the most successful programs have been the most directive. Among innovative high schools designed to increase employment, the one clear success has been Career Academies, a form of school-within-a-school where teachers engage small groups of students in a family-like setting. Instructors set high standards and then help youth attain them with more sustained and personalized attention than they get in the usual high school. This approach significantly improves students’ earnings and employment.44 The most successful training program has been Job Corps, which places disadvantaged youth in a prep-school-like setting, away from home, where they are closely supervised; it too raises both earnings and employment.45 Similarly, the National Guard Youth Challenge Corps sends disadvantaged youth to a military base for five months, followed by a year of mentoring by National Guard members. The youth begin as dropouts, but 73 percent of those who finish the program have gotten high school diplomas or a GED.46

All these programs are for youth. Government has so far failed to generate comparable structures for adult men. Such programs must be both more supportive and more demanding than traditional training. Rather than just impart skills, they must address the troubled relations that disadvantaged men often have with employers. The program itself must exemplify a constructive relationship between the worker and authority, trading acceptance for performance.

A model might be the Center for Employment Training, a noted training organization for adults in San José, California. Local employers work closely with CET to define wellpaying jobs they need to fill. The program then prepares trainees, most of whom are Hispanic, to take the jobs with full-day sessions that mimic actual work. The key appears to be offering real opportunities, while keeping clients under strong pressure—with help from the surrounding Hispanic community— not to waste their opportunity. Unfortunately, CET has not proven to be replicable in other locations.47

The Military Model
The limitation of all these programs, including CET, is that they are voluntary and cannot literally enforce work. Clients can walk away from them without losing anything else of value. The programs thus depend on informal suasions to maintain involvement. How could men be required to work in the same manner as welfare mothers?

Some observers have seen the military as a possible answer. Hugh Price, a close observer of black youth, remarks on the power of military service to straighten out other blacks he knew growing up who never connected with school. The army imposed discipline while also offering advancement to soldiers who performed. It taught what society wants all youth to learn—that “if you do a job well, you get ahead.” During the late 1980s, after conditions for ghetto youth had sharply deteriorated, another expert opined that it might be time to “conscript them for their own good.”48

The military achieves exactly the sublimation of male assertiveness mentioned above. The “four-star general,” as Daniel Moynihan wrote in the “Moynihan Report,” expresses the “very essence of the male animal,” which is “to strut.” The military offers blacks an arena for advancement where equal opportunity is stiffly enforced. Black entry into the military has historically been high. But once in the military, many youth find that officers act like the fathers they never had, demanding compliance with rules and orders.49 So the effect on black recruits can be salutary.

But relatively few blacks tested well enough to qualify for the army even in 1965, when the draft was still in force. Even fewer can do so today, when the military is volunteer and seldom admits high school dropouts. Some studies find that black men who serve in the military do indeed have better postservice work records than blacks who do not serve, but black enlistment is no longer unusually high.50 To combine opportunity with a work requirement, then, policymakers must adapt other large institutions that already exert authority over many low-income men.