Why does everyone have to work?

An audio version of this blog post is available on episode 164 of The Pod Delusion, 40 minutes in.

A lot of tasks are carried out by people not employed to carry them out. People care for relatives, cook for neighbours, run clubs for children, look after communal gardens where they live. This is the real big society. Many of these people are not in employment at all, never mind paid to do what they do.

Others pursue hobbies that might bring great joy to them and to society, or provide useful innovations applicable to other things. Writers, inventors, amateur scientists, musicians, artists – all produce things of great worth to society. When people work all hours for an employer these tasks are neglected but when people work less or not at all they are free to pursue these things.

Parents are not valued by society for the task that they do, instead it being expected that both parents in a couple will work

There is worth in a vast number of tasks that are not part of “work” and yet these tasks are not valued by people and government does not see any worth outside of a paid job.

Current attitudes to welfare benefits seem to focus on dividing people into deserving and undeserving poor. Politicians argue that we should have more conditionality in our system; that we should return to an insurance style of benefit for out-of-work benefits so that those who have not spent enough time in work cannot claim the same benefits that those who have worked for years can. They want to take benefits away from those who don’t make enough effort to find a job. The Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity scheme send people to do unpaid work for big businesses and charities, punishing those who refuse by taking away their tiny benefits for weeks, months or even years, even though such “work experience” is often simply manual labour that requires little training and does not help anyone to find a permanent job. Many people express the opinion that those in receipt of welfare benefits should not have “luxuries” such as Sky TV or broadband, and resent such things being paid for by benefits out of tax funds, seeing themselves as personally paying for such things. Indeed, government ministers have floated the idea of paying benefits in the form of payment cards that cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco which is a terrible idea.

The question that I want to ask, though, is why does everyone have to work?

I believe the answer is that they don’t.

In our modern industrial society we have driven down the cost of production through two things: exploitation of cheap overseas labour, and mechanisation and automation. I will come back to the first of these later, but what of the second?

Mechanisation has vastly reduced the need for labour. More could be done to continue this trend, but historically it has been opposed by unions because it puts people out of work. I think the time has come to say GOOD. Let’s put people out of work. Automate everything that can be automated. The remaining jobs should be divided up between everyone who wants to work, reducing the hours of all jobs until all those who want to work have the working hours that they want.

Of course doing so would leave many people without any income, or dependant on Job Seeker’s Allowance and looking for jobs that just don’t exist. (As is already the case.) These people cannot be punished for failing to find jobs that don’t exist, that is indefensible. I propose a change in the way that society thinks about people who do not work. We must stop resenting them, stop begrudging them any small luxuries that they may have, and instead pay them a decent income that allows a decent life. But that would be unfair! Why should they get something that you do not? Well there is a solution to that. Pay a salary to everyone, working or not, deserving or not. This concept is known variously as Universal Income, Citizen’s Income, Basic Income, or combinations thereof. Here’s how it would work:

Every adult citizen would receive a salary, paid to them by the government, of enough to cover basic living costs. It would perhaps be set at a level that would cover one person living in a shared house or a couple living together.

To finance this, the tax allowance would be abolished. Instead the citizen’s income would be paid tax free, and all earnings from other sources would be taxed at the standard rate from the start. Nearly all in-work and out of work benefits would also be abolished. Anyone without a job would stop receiving Job Seeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit as those are replaced by the Citizen’s Income. Indeed, Housing Benefit to anyone who is in work would also cease.

Sick and disabled people would no longer receive ESA. They would receive Citizen’s Income too. In their case, though, they have additional expenses and a higher cost of living caused by needing to adapt things around them and inability to access some services so they would still receive Disability Living Allowance to provide for that, and care would still be funded by government.

The benefits that Citizen’s Income would bring are large. There would be no need to means-test people, and means testing is expensive. There would be no reason to track people’s efforts to look for work, and there would be no reason to punish anyone for not working – eliminating a huge bureaucracy required to do those things. There would be no stress and fear of losing benefits imposed on people who for one reason or another cannot work, no Work Capability Assessment – leading to improvements in health and quality of life.

Of course people will object to those choosing not to work, which is why we all need to approach the idea with less judgement. Although benefit fraud is tiny and the number of people who would choose not to work is low, such people do exist. There are people who do not want to work and there are people who are just plain unemployable. Under the current and proposed systems they would be punished for not finding work and ultimately end up homeless or dependant on family or charity if anyone at all. I do not think doing this is the action of a humane society. Would it not be better to let these people stay out of the workplace, avoid employing people who do not want to be there or would not do a good job? It may well be that eventually such people will decide that they do want to work and will then find a job that they want to do and pay taxes. There are many people that do want to work but only part time, and a Citizen’s income would enable them to do so where the current system would make it impossible.

Allowing more people to work for less hours might also have the benefit of making some jobs more attractive so that work currently carried out overseas or by immigrants becomes feasible to carry out locally, thus working towards solving the problem of exploitation of cheap overseas labour.

Such a system would have to be introduced alongside rent caps to prevent private landlords from taking advantage of more available income by inflating rents. I cannot pretend that a Citizen’s Income would not be very attractive to people in some other countries too, and short of introducing the idea worldwide we would have to consider carefully how to treat immigrants. (This sentence makes me uncomfortable, but I think it does need to be considered.)

Citizen’s Income would:

  • Replace the tax allowance and the benefits system
  • Make savings on means testing and administration
  • Allow freedom to work part time, full time or not at all
  • Allow the pursuit of hobbies and interests away from work
  • Produce inventions and innovations that benefit us all
  • Result in the production of books, music and art
  • Allow people to perform services for others and their community
  • Shift the balance of power from employers to employees
  • Provide security when jobs are not secure
  • Remove the fear and stress of disability assessments

The whole idea of Citizen’s Income necessitates a huge shift in the way that our society thinks but since many are calling for a rethink of our welfare system anyway I think now is the time to consider it.

Disclaimer: I am no expert, so if I have made any errors or misrepresented anything please let me know.

Further Reading

Basic income guarantee [Wikipedia]

Basic Income Earth Network

Citizen’s Income Trust

A Universal Basic Income

Global Basic Income Foundation

 

No alcohol or tobacco

“No alcohol or tobacco”

That’s what you get printed on vouchers for emergency food supplies  from Co-op and Tesco given out by a charity where I live. And now, it seems, it could apply to all benefits paid to “120,000 problem families” if Iain Duncan Smith has his way. According to The Telegraph:

Iain Duncan Smith has asked his officials to see if so-called ‘problem’ families should receive their welfare payments on smart cards, rather than in cash.

The cards would only be able to pay for “priority” items such as food, housing, clothing, education and health care.

The Work and Pensions secretary wants to stop parents who are alcoholics or who are on drugs from using welfare payments to fuel their addictions.

The team of civil servants in his department have been asked to come up with proposals by the end of this month.

We can find the government’s definition of these 120,000 “problem families” in an article from The Independent back in June:

Under government criteria, a troubled family is one that meets five out of seven criteria: having a low income, no one in the family who is working, poor housing, parents who have no qualifications, where the mother has a mental health problem, one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.

There are many problems with this definition but it can be summarised thusly:

“So basically anyone without the good manners to be born healthy, rich and privileged.” – @IamMrJ

The Problems

Leaving aside for a moment the morality of dictating what people can buy, the first problem I can see with this scheme is that it will favour big businesses and supermarkets and leave small local shops and markets by the wayside. There will be costs involved in accepting these payment cards which small shops will be unlikely to be able to afford, as well, I’m sure, as checks to make sure that shops honour the restrictions . Street markets are usually cash only which would bar people from getting cheap local fresh fruit and vegetables too.

The second problem is related; because of barriers to accepting the smart cards or to restrictions on what can be purchased people will be barred from shopping around for cheaper food and some will be prevented from purchasing specialist items that are required for their health but are not prescribed or considered by government to be necessary.

The third problem, and possibly the biggest problem I see is that sick or disabled people often have no choice in where they shop. The limited ability to travel or to carry things can mean that the nearest shop is the only one they can use. If small shops are not able to accept these cards then there may be no other source of food open to these people.

https://twitter.com/Spoonydoc/status/257067504952803328

Many sick or disabled people order their shopping over the internet; in fact this is often a requirement since care plans have written internet shopping in so as to cut costs of providing carers for shopping trips. This will probably be less of a problem since supermarkets will accept cards but the question remains as to whether or not they will accept them over the internet.

Breaking Addiction

If the idea of this scheme is as reported, to stop feeding addiction, then it will be pointless anyway. Addiction is powerful and removing funds doesn’t mean that people won’t be addicted any more. If someone is dependant on nicotine or alcohol then providing benefits on a restricted smart card will not prevent them from obtaining these things if they have to. It will lead to a black market – to bartering of valuable items for cigarettes and alcohol, or to selling of benefit funds for much less than the real value resulting in less money for the benefit recipient. It could well lead to theft to feed the addiction. It will certainly drive some into prostitution. Drug dependency drives people to desperate measures and they won’t always be rational.

Pleasure and Entertainment

Finally we must ask why society deems it acceptable to tell those who are least fortunate that they must not have any pleasures or enjoyment. It seems that those who must rely on benefits are resented and even envied for what they have. Some is illogical; for example Motability cars are not a luxury, they are required for people who cannot walk to get to medical appointments or to go shopping and the cars are leased not given. Internet connections may be the only way that some people can shop, communicate, pay bills, claim benefits or get support and yet some people still think that an internet connection is a luxury that those on benefits should not have. People who have TVs and perhaps TV subscriptions are resented, but for those who are forced to stay in the home by illness or have no funds to go out it may be the only thing to occupy their time. Should these people be forced to sit and stare at the wall for the rest of their lives? We seem to have broken the concept of national insurance. When a person who has worked and paid their dues becomes unemployed or unable to work and receives benefits they are resented for claiming benefits that they have been paying for while working. Must they too give up all pleasure in their lives? We can be certain that restrictions along these lines will exacerbate or even cause mental health problems.

The government hasn’t addressed the reasons for smoking and drinking either, and it’s not just about addiction. Smoking is an appetite suppressant  When food is expensive and income is so low parents often buy food for their children while smoking to mitigate their own hunger pangs. Alcohol is a pain killer and a sedative; like it or not for some people despite all of our medical advances alcohol may be the only way that they can have a few pain-free hours or relax enough to go to sleep.

Nanny State

Others have said this better than me:

https://twitter.com/DickMandrake/status/257065327022718976

https://twitter.com/DocHackenbush/status/257064611390562304

https://twitter.com/DocHackenbush/status/257065034595827712

 

I shall end with this. Another extremely worrying element of this is what the cards would pay for:

“education and health care”

Now why would we need to pay for those?

 

120,000 troubled families could be legally banned from spending benefits on alcohol and tobacco [Telegraph]

Problem families told – ‘Stop blaming others’ [The Independent]

People on benefits? They’re all scroungers aren’t they?

This article was written for The Broken of Britain.

In spite of all that I have written on my blog about wanting to work, about my efforts to keep working even as my body fails on me, about how my wife (a qualified science teacher) is doing cleaning work that pays less than Job Seekers Allowance and creates havoc with our other benefit claims, I often receive criticism for my views. People think that because I fight against benefit cuts, I support lazy people that simply want handouts and expect a free ride from the state. That could not be further from the truth.

I can’t deny that there are lazy people out there. While visiting the job centre in the past I have talked to people that see having to sign on as the height of inconvenience, that complain about the job searches they are asked to do. And quite honestly, with the attitudes I have seen, I wouldn’t employ some of them either. But they’re a minority. Living on benefits is hell. There is never enough money. You never know when someone might decide that you have been overpaid and start clawing the money back. For Job Seekers Allowance, you have to sign on every fortnight, attend meetings seemingly at random, and take training courses that you could teach. You can be “fined” for being five minutes late to an appointment. You are only allowed to miss an appointment through sickness twice in your whole claim. For sickness benefits it isn’t any better. While on incapacity benefit in previous years I had to attend regular meetings to discuss the possibility of me finding any work at all that I could do with such poor health. Those meetings and travelling to them made me ill for a week each time. The whole system could have been designed with the express intention of utterly destroying your soul. Most people hate claiming benefits, and most people would actually like a standard of living that is not attainable on the meagre amounts that benefits pay.

The infamous “families with 3 generations unemployed” do exist. Perhaps that does affect the attitude and desire to work in the youngest, I couldn’t say. But there is a reason that these people are unemployed. There are no jobs! There are approximately 2.5 million unemployed, and an estimated 0.5 million jobs, most of which are only part time. However you look at it, 2 million people will not find work. Some may argue that they should take responsibility and start their own business, however most people simply don’t have it in them to come up with a business idea, or have the knowledge and perseverance to run their own business.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The Department of Work and Pensions keeps official statistics on levels of benefit fraud. Here are the figures showing the total amount of expenditure on benefits that is fraudulently claimed.

  • Income support fraud: 2.8%
  • Job Seekers Allowance fraud: 2.5%
  • Housing Benefit fraud: 1.3%
  • Incapacity benefit fraud: 0.5%
  • Disability Living Allowance fraud: 0.5%

Total benefit fraud is estimated to be 0.7%. Total error by claimants is also 0.7%. And error by officials? Another 0.7%. So administration error costs the same as fraud. That’s not to mention the 0.3% error causing underpayments, or the 0.9% (£60 million) that administration errors deprive incapacity claimants of.

Ultimately, the vilification by the tabloids of everyone on benefits and everyone who is sick and disabled is incredibly harmful. Public opinion is shaped by the lies and the twisted numbers put out by the tabloids which cause the public to back the government in cracking down on benefit fraud and in ruthlessly cutting benefits. In the end that causes great hurt and anguish for the vast majority of people that genuinely need the help.