What if more Americans worked from home?

This article, the second in the series, looks at policy questions, and explores what might have to change in our policy discussions to encourage more telecommuting.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

How To Save Jobs (free download). I used that research as the foundation for the article, The enormous societal benefits of working from home.

This article, the second in the series, looks at policy questions and explores what might have to change in our policy discussions to encourage more telecommuting.

Image: Library of Congress

Clearly, if more Americans worked from home, it could be very, very good for America:

  • We'd reduce our reliance on foreign oil

  • We'd reduce pollution

  • We'd reduce global warming

  • We'd regain billions of hours of productivity and family time

  • We'd save a ton of money

  • We'd reduce our costs for road construction and highway maintenance

  • We'd even probably reduce the number of latch-key kids

That's why it's so unfortunate that the IRS seems to distrust some home-based businesses, home offices, and people working from home. According to BusinessWeek:

The home office deduction acts as something of a red flag to the Internal Revenue Service because it can easily be abused by small business owners who claim a larger home office than they actually have, or who deduct expenses for an office that is not truly dedicated to business use.

Instead of using a home office as a red flag, US tax policy needs to encourage working from home. Part of the problem is that deducting a home office is a complex process. One way to encourage working from home is to establish a standard home office deduction that can simply be checked off as part of the tax preparation process. This would still allow for itemizing more complex home office expenses, but makes it easier for most home workers.

I spoke to Kristie Arslan of the National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE), and asked her if they'd considered a policy for this. She told me:

The NASE believes that the home office deduction must be simplified and expanded to allow home-based businesses to easily utilize this tax benefit. We support the creation of a standard deduction option within the range of $1,500 to $2,000. Home-based entrepreneurs qualifying for the deduction could choose between selecting the simple, standard deduction, or itemizing if they feel they would receive a larger tax benefit.

I'd actually recommend going further than this. Rather than providing a relatively minor standard deduction — which, admittedly, would reduce audit risk — I'd like to see an aggressive program that actively encouraged working from home, perhaps in the form of a tax credit.

So many of our nation's mission-critical challenges could benefit if millions of Americans transitioned from commuting to working from home. I'd like to see a program that provided a credit for the number of days worked from home, or some other metric that was both easy to calculate and a strong incentive.

Perhaps this could be extended to employers as well, with deductions or credits that encouraged employers to encourage employees to work from home — as long as those homes are in the United States, of course.

But there's more to this than just tax policy. As with other aspects of changing how we function as a nation, our perception of ourselves has to change as well.

Changing hearts and minds

During World War II and after the Great Depression, the United States government set out on what, today, we'd almost call a propaganda campaign. The government's campaign was designed to educate Americans on values that would be helpful in a recovery. Yes, I know. If we did that today, certain pundits would have a coronary. But we're talking history here.

As part of the New Deal, President Franklin D Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Although not without its critics at the time, the WPA was considered to be the nation's largest employer and helped drive recovery from the Great Depression. One of the more interesting and enduring aspects of the WPA was its employment of artists and other creative people.

Early on, the WPA employed mostly construction workers and traditional tradesmen. But, according to Margaret Bing, curator of the Bienes Center for the Literary Arts, "Federal Project No. 1 of the Works Progress Administration was developed to give artistic and professional work to the unemployed who qualified".

According to Bing (the arts curator, not the search engine):

Federal Art Project (FAP) began as a part of Federal One with Holger Cahill as its director. By March of 1936, regional field offices were established throughout the country, employing as many as 6,000 people. Fifty percent of the FAP workers were directly engaged in creating works of art, while 10 to 25 percent worked in art education; the rest worked in art research.

By 1938, 42,000 easel paintings and 1,100 murals in public buildings were commissioned. Large numbers of sculptures, silk-screen prints, posters, and other graphic works were also made, and the FAP frequently worked in cooperation with the Federal Writers' Project to design covers and illustrations for its publications.

Many of these images were used to communicate values and messages, like the wonderful images shown at the beginning of this article.

If you look carefully, you might notice one poster that's particularly familiar. Have you noticed it? It's the one on the upper right with the caption "Work With Care". According to the United States Library of Congress WPA Poster Collection, this particular WPA poster was created in 1936 or 1937 in Pennsylvania by an artist named Robert Muchley.

How To Save Jobs
(Image: David Gewirtz)

The art from Mr Muchley's poster is also the cover illustration for How To Save Jobs (from which this article is derived), and the image was chosen for a reason. I believe that if we're going to transform our approach to jobs in America, the motivations can't just be the result of legislative changes or come from simply hacking our tax policy.

Instead, I believe we have to change how we think about jobs and some of our core values here in America. For example, instead of discouraging home workers, we need to change our value system so we celebrate home workers, because each person who works from home is someone who's helping to save our resources, our roads, our air, and possibly the planet itself.

As you think about teleworking and working from home, think about ways in which our relationship to employment and income production needs to change. Whether or not we can save jobs in America may well depend on changes not only in policy, but in attitude.

Healthy bicycle commuters

While I was writing this chapter, one of my Twitter followers pointed out that not all commuters drive cars. He asked: what about people who ride bicycles to work? According to a Portland State University study, about 1 percent of commuters ride a bike to work. While those 1.6 million commuters are certainly fitter than the rest of us, they're already part of the solution. Bike commuters (and those who walk to work) don't pollute — and the natural cardio exercise of their commute often makes them healthier than the rest of us.

Stay tuned. More tomorrow about the challenges of managing all this.

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