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Work Is Essential to the American Dream


May 4, 2023

Work is one of the foundations of American life. Almost always, being employed and earning income gives individuals the opportunity, responsibility, and community they need to flourish. The broader importance of work can’t be overstated. A larger workforce also contributes significantly to our general prosperity allowing us to afford, among other things, a more effective safety net and better schools. In our divided time, a belief in the benefits of work is one value that still brings Americans together.

Last month, almost 80 percent of voters in Wisconsin approved a ballot initiative calling for work requirements on all taxpayer-funded welfare programs for able-bodied recipients without children. As I wrote shortly after the vote, this referendum shows how support for work can unite most voters, even in a polarized state. Americans intuitively agree with the social science research showing a combination of work and government support provides the surest path out of poverty for struggling individuals.

In 2021 and again last year, a permanent expansion of the child tax credit proposed by President Joe Biden failed to pass in large part because it lacked work requirements, and evidence showed that it would discourage work. In a landmark working paper, AEI’s Bruce Meyer, Kevin Corinth, and their co-authors estimated that it would cause as many as 1.5 million Americans to leave the labor force. Since the expanded child tax credit expired in December 2021, prime-age workers’ labor force participation rate has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Though Americans have lost confidence in many things, they haven’t lost faith in work. Two-thirds of respondents to a WSJ/NORC survey said hard work was a “very important” value to them—the highest share received by any value asked about in the survey.

We can’t forget why work matters so much to so many people. Work is the key to achieving the American dream: If you work hard and play by the rules, you can secure a better life for yourself and your children. That’s a promise our country must always fulfill.

Preserving this promise is why AEI recently launched the American Dream Initiative, an ambitious project designed to promote policies that increase opportunity and upward mobility and grow appreciation for the American Dream among leaders nationwide. The American Dream Initiative includes:

  1. AEI’s new Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility, led by AEI scholars Scott Winship and Kevin Corinth. This center will serve as a hub of scholarship and activity on policy issues related to poverty and opportunity, all undergirded by the principle that work is the best pathway to escaping poverty.
  2. Newly established networks of practitioners, policymakers, and thinkers who work in AEI scholars’ research areas on topics such as workforce development, social and economic mobility, poverty alleviation, and more. This effort will focus on a number of metro areas, including Indianapolis, Denver, Miami, Lexington, and more.
  3. A major summit, taking place in Miami, Florida, on February 5–8, 2024. This summit will convene hundreds of policy leaders for substantive conversations on issues related to the American Dream, and connect them with the best scholarship that can help them implement AEI scholars’ work in their communities.

Please visit to learn more about the work AEI scholars are producing as part of this project.