Having both spent many years in the developing world working on poverty issues, Phil Harvey and I found our interests turning to poverty in our own country. Despite the fact that the United States leads the developing world in so many ways, 15% of Americans still live in poverty. How could this be?, we wondered, and we decided to investigate. We turned to the programs in place to help the poor – or vast, trillion-dollar-a-year welfare entitlement system – to find answers.
We were informed also by America’s founding documents. Our own Declaration of Independence tells us we are entitled to pursue happiness. Surely then our entitlement programs help the poor seek happier lives? And what makes us happy, fulfilled, self-actualized? Our studies taught us that work is a key component of human happiness, so we expected to find a system geared towards getting the poor into the workforce, and out of poverty.
Sadly, we discovered instead a welfare system that traps people in poverty, rather than helping them get out of it. Welfare programs today make working threatening and scary to its beneficiaries, a threat to their benefits and the security they bring. It is no surprise then that those would find themselves in the system end up losing the drive to work – and ultimately, their main source of happiness.
The majority of those we interviewed didn’t want to be on welfare, they wished they were working – they still had faith in the American Dream, and had assumed they’d be a part of it. But our welfare system is so badly structured that it keeps people stuck in the welfare rut.
Having Work & Happiness airing nationwide has provided a 1-2 punch for us; we have been able to promote our work using the film to cement and more deeply inform our relationships with the many professionals and organizations that work in the poverty sphere, and conversely, the viewers who see the film and want to learn more can purchase our book to delve further into the research and data underpinning our thesis. The film and the book each have their strengths; the film tells stories viewers can connect with on a personal level, while the book supports the arguments we made with research, data and policy analysis. This cooperative effort with Free To Choose Media has been invaluable, and this model, of a book and documentary, is one we look forward to implementing with our new book Welfare for the Rich.
As Director of Policy Studies at DKT Liberty Project, Lisa Conyers works on topics including welfare, inequality and civil liberties. She has traveled the globe, reporting on welfare dependence and its effects on recipients, the relationship between religiosity and criminal behavior, the role and prevalence of violence in civil society, and the impact of health and family planning programs in the developing world. She is co-author of The Human Cost of Welfare, for which she conducted more than 80 interviews with welfare recipients across the country. She holds an undergraduate degree in American Studies from George Mason University and a Master’s degree in Management from the University of Maryland.