Both parties want to be the party of “jobs,” but there isn’t any sign of legislation to promote job growth. Corporate tax rates remain uncompetitive. The Keystone XL pipeline has yet to be approved. The Environmental Protection Agency is wreaking havoc on business and Obamacare has made it very expensive to hire that 50th employee, which triggers health coverage requirements. A stack of House bills on items such as overtime flexibility and job training remain dormant in the Senate.

Workers stand atop water tanks while they help keep an eye on water pressure and temperature at an oil and gas hydraulic fracturing site outside Rifle, Colo. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

But it seems the GOP — which already  is for tax reform, domestic energy development and Obamacare repeal — is missing something in the jobs debate.

Republicans should be talking more about work, not jobs. There is a distinction. Work is about what individuals do and what psychic reward one gets. “Job” is the venue where the work gets done.

Arthur Brooks, who heads the American Enterprise Institute, writes:

The data confirm that hard work is correlated with well-being. The University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics polls thousands of American families, and its 2009 results show that people who feel good about themselves work more than those who don’t. It asks how often the respondents felt so sad that nothing could cheer them up. My analysis of the study showed that people who felt that way “none of the time” worked 10 percent more hours per week than those who felt that way “most of the time.” This holds true when we eliminate people who worked zero hours, so it is not merely that unemployed people are miserable. This doesn’t prove that extra work hours chase away sadness, but it weakens any argument that the cure for the blues is a French workweek.. . .

The Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan has for decades studied what happens to sons and daughters when their fathers are absent. She finds that after controlling for demographics, children in fatherless families are roughly twice as likely to drop out of high school as kids in intact homes. Even after controlling for student talent via standardized test scores, a sharp decline in grades and attendance persists. And young men who grow up without a father are 1.5 times more likely to be idle — that is, neither in the work force nor in school — than those with a father in the home.

And that’s a problem, Brooks points out, because we are creating fewer jobs and have a greater percentage of adults without work. (“In 1953, just 14 percent of adult American men were neither working nor seeking work. Today, that rate has more than doubled, to 30 percent. And this doesn’t only reflect an aging population with more retired men: Just after World War II, 8 percent of noninstitutionalized males ages 25 to 54 were not working. Today, 17 percent of that same group of men are idle.”)

Republicans would do well to stress three things.

First, “tax reform” needs to address the economic policies that make labor expensive. The minimum wage is in effect a tax on business, making it more expensive to hire workers. Whatever the constitutional definition, Obamacare, economically speaking, is a tax insofar as it burdens employment. And the structure of the subsidies, we learned, imposes a very high marginal tax rate on beneficiaries and therefore would lead to the equivalent of 2 million jobs. So the first principle must be to do no harm, to avoid making it harder to work.

Second, we need to increase incentives for work as did welfare reform, one of the most successful pieces of legislation in the last few decades. That means substantially increasing the earned-income tax credit so anyone working 40 hours a week has a decent household income. Getting people re-attached to the workforce is worth the cost of an EITC boost, and we know statistically a first job will lead to better paying jobs. As many safety-net programs as possible should be tied to work or work training.

Third, conservatives need to get creative about expanding opportunity. The reform conservative manifesto “Room to Grow” recommends “[r]olling back oppressive licensing requirements.” For example, “The Institute for Justice reports that the average cosmetologist spends 372 days in training to receive an occupational license from the government, while the average emergency medical technician trains for thirty-three days.” Likewise, unemployment benefits need to be structured to get people to where the jobs are. “It makes sense, therefore, to at least provide a long-term unemployed California worker with information about employment and earnings for his occupation and demographic group in different places, both in California and in other states. And it makes sense to help him to move to another state if he so chooses. This help could take the form of a grant (replacing potential unemployment benefits) to cover his moving expenses, a low-interest government-backed loan with repayment capped at a certain share of future earnings, or some combination of the two.”

In promoting these and other initiatives conservatives should be clear that work is not a burden or punishment; it is a pathway to a successful and happy life. And it is the most effective way of allowing all Americans to share in the pride and dignity of work. The safety net is there for those who are too sick, too young or too old to work. If we want to increase upward mobility and reduce poverty, the most positive policies are those that connect able-bodied people with the workforce. The party of work, therefore, is the party that truly cares about the poor and inequality.