“…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We all know the memorable phrase enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, right? Yes, we were declaring our independence from the British, and yes, we were laying out the foundation for a whole new nation, and yes, we were fundamentally changing the rules of the global expansion game, and yet the founding fathers managed to find the time to insist we  protect our pursuit of happiness as well.

Little words, lots of big questions. First of all, why pursuit? Notice they didn’t insist we be happy. They said we have the right to pursue happiness. Whether we attain it or not is up to us. Unlike the other inalienable rights to life and liberty, which are unconditional, happiness requires action and work on our part – the pursuit.

And what about that word happiness? What does happiness mean? A lot has been written about happiness, and a lot of studies have been done, and continue to be done, on the question of what it means to be happy. In fact, At the Rio+20 summit this summer, the United Nations will push for a worldwide focus on the right to human happiness.

Our definition comes from sociologist Charles Murray’s “In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government”,  in which he defines happiness as “lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole” and concludes that “It is essential to the pursuit of happiness that one earn one’s life. The threshold condition of self-respect is that one feel, not in one’s public protestations but in one’s heart, that he is a net contributor to the world.”.

Murray lays out a compelling defense of the pursuit of happiness against an array of challenges posed by dependence on economic aid and assistance in the form of welfare programs. He convincingly concludes that human beings, when left to their own devices, will succeed in their pursuit of happiness, but when shackled by economic dependence are condemned to a life devoid of the possibility of happiness.

Our new project seeks to add a human dimension to this intellectual exercise through interviews with people who depend on these programs.

We will start with a review of current economic aid programs in the United States – you can call them welfare, entitlement or transfer programs, the underlying premise being that money from the state is given to the individual in the form economic assistance – and then we will hit the road in search of case studies, looking not only at the population at large, but also at the especially heavily dependent populations found on some Native American reservations.

Join us as we crisscross the nation from Seattle to the Navajo lands, from Harlem to Pine Ridge Reservation, from Flagstaff to Washington, DC, and many places in between, in search of Americans with stories to tell.