To understand a country’s values and identity, look to its immigration and naturalization policies. The United States’ first immigration law, the Naturalization Act of 1790, limited immigrant citizenship to “free white persons,” expressing the country’s self-understanding throughout the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries as a white republic. The same was true of Australia throughout much of the 20th century, as reflected in its Immigration Restriction Act of 1901—better known as the “white Australia policy.” The reverse is true today in Liberia, which limits citizenship to “only persons who are negroes or of negro descent.” Countries with large diasporas including Israel, Ireland, Ghana, and Hungary maintain a constitutional or legal “right of return” privileging immigrant co-ethnics for citizenship and thus defining an ethnic core for the nation. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, only Muslims may be naturalized, inscribing Islam at the center of national identity.
Since 1965, the United States has maintained neither racial, ethnic, nor religious preferences for immigrant residency or naturalization (a point supported by the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Trump v. Hawaii). This policy reflects the country’s novel post-World War II identity as a pluralistic, globe-spanning empire. At the same time, a more traditional aspect of national identity has been fortified by the country’s post-1965 immigration policies. The homeless and tempest-tost of the world seek America, and its citizens on balance welcome them, because both believe the United States to be the Republic of Work.
The United States is by far the world’s largest migrant destination. It has one of the most open labor-oriented immigration regimes. This is made possible because immigrant and citizen alike believe in the redemptive message of the Gospel of Work. But Americans should step back and reconsider their faith, for the Republic of Work isn’t working.
Unusually in 21st-century America, both Democrats and Republicans agree that America is defined by its commitment to work. Mainstream Democrats can’t speak of immigrants without praising their “hard work” and their willingness to “do the jobs Americans won’t do.” Lest we forget, one of the biggest crowd-pleasers in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was the line “Immigrants—we get the job done.” Over the past 10 years, the number of Democrats saying immigrants “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” has exploded, now standing at more than 80 percent. The Biden administration’s reluctance to secure the country’s southwest border— which some 3.5 million migrants have tried to cross illegally since January 2021, most with nothing but their labor-power and their work ethic to offer—is tied up with Democrats’ belief that such people are exemplars of the national identity.
Rank-and-file Republicans dissent, of course. Only 40 percent believe the “hard work” of immigrants improves the country, and the Trump presidency gave voice to their immigration skepticism. This wasn’t for lack of faith in the Gospel of Work, however. Republicans are less sanguine on immigration precisely because they believe low-skilled immigrants absorb tax dollars and job opportunities that should go instead to “hard-working” American citizens. Recent GOP electoral successes with Hispanic voters in states like Florida and Texas have been premised precisely on the GOP’s readiness to defend the Republic of Work, by opposing “socialism” and preserving “the American dream.”
Americans’ belief in the redemptive power of work bolsters our unusually high number of hours spent on the job. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average American worker, whether full-time, part-time, or seasonal, clocked 1,791 hours in 2021. That tally was higher than any other country of Western Europe, Australasia, or Japan. Based on the average American workweek (34.4 hours) in 2021, Canadians worked three weeks fewer per year than Americans, Brits eight-and-a-half weeks fewer, and Danes an incredible 12 weeks fewer. While measurement differences across countries create some false precision, it is nonetheless clear that among the wealthiest countries in the world, only South Koreans work more than do Americans.
Unfortunately for Americans, work isn’t living up to its redemptive promises. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that at the 25th percentile of earnings, full-time workers aged 25 and over make $745 per week. This is right about the “low-income” level (200 percent of the federal poverty line) for a family of two. Among adult high-school graduates—about a quarter of the US workforce—weekly earnings at the 25th percentile are just $640. Not only is income in America poorly distributed, so is work itself. Among people between the ages of 25 and 64, 77 percent of Americans were in the labor force in 2021. In Canada and Britain, it was 82 percent, while in Denmark 84 percent. The labor-force-participation rate of American male workers age 25-54—precisely the demographic most in need of employment in the Republic of Work—is 88.6 percent, a figure below pre-pandemic levels, nearly 3 percent under rates prior to the Great Recession, and a remarkable 9 percent lower than in the 1950s.
For professional-managerial-class Americans—those who have “careers,” rather than “jobs”—it is easy to forget that little work in America looks like a vocation. Metlife has found that Americans’ job satisfaction stands at a 20-year nadir and is especially low among manual workers. For those in the lowest quarter of the pay scale, the lack of benefits, opportunities for promotion, and power over their daily activities is acute. The Gospel of Work praises such wage slavery when performed in service of one’s family, but this preaching is increasingly falling on deaf ears. In the United States today, barely half of adults are married and only 40 percent of family households have minor children in them. The country’s post-Great Recession fertility crash is only reinforcing these trends.
Yet Americans keep clinging to that old time religion. Biden’s child allowances weren’t renewed in part because a clear majority of voters opposed them for parents not in the labor force. This was even—in fact, especially—true among working-class Americans. A 2021 survey found they were the least supportive of increasing the value of the child allowances, least supportive of making them permanent, the only social class on net to oppose child allowances for households with no working members, and the most supportive of poverty reduction through “families supporting themselves.”
These views aren’t motivated by concerns over policy effectiveness. They are moral objections rooted in a belief that only “hard work” for wages merits social approval and support. As we have no evidence that enforcing poverty on women is a disincentive to pregnancy (while we do know it is an incentive to abortion), the Gospel of Work appears to visit the sins of the fathers upon the sons. The fact that work isn’t working for the working class perversely seems to only reinforce belief in the stern demands of a Calvinist gospel that is lacking Calvin’s redemptive God.
Perhaps this should be expected in a nation that has little binding it together apart from the work ethic. Each of the old social practices and institutions that could ennoble work—religious belief, local solidarity, worker self-organization, family—has declined. Without these things, the work ethic becomes little other than selfishness or false consciousness—or both. Of course, work is necessary and even good insofar as it serves the common good. But rather than continually reinforce the Republic of Work, social conservatives could instead find their own health and the health of the nation in the family, religious faith, and human dignity. If the mania for work was stayed, care for the young, the old, and the sick could take place more often within the family. Communal associations, including religious institutions, could be revived. The market’s ever-growing role as arbiter of all value could be reversed.
Some fear that the alternative to the Republic of Work is either exploitation by “welfare queens” or a WALL-E (or Silicon Valley) dystopia of universal corpulent leisure enabled by robots. But neither of these defines daily life in countries that work far less than Americans do today. Even a massive 20 percent decline in average hours worked would take America to the level of Norway, a country with an 80 percent labor-force-participation rate among adults with only a high school diploma (compared to 69 percent in the US) and one that the United Nations Development Programme judges as having the highest level of human development in the world. Work will always be with us, yet it need not define us either as individuals or as a people. Setting those things which are truly ennobling at the center of national life would allow Americans to put work in its proper place.