Who will do the work if we just give people enough money to live on? It’s a question I see all too often around any kind of suggestion that welfare support should not leave people in abject misery.
No one imagines that people who would otherwise have been priests, musicians, doctors, politicians, teachers, actors, CEOs and so forth would just stay at home doing nothing if decent benefits were available. We recognise that some jobs have intrinsic value. Also no one imagines people would be motivated not to go after high paying jobs if offered adequate out-of-work support.
Who will do the awful work if they aren’t frightened into it by the greater horrors of abject poverty? Who will tolerate the ten and twelve hour shifts at minimum wage if the alternative isn’t worse? How do we make people accept tedious, dead end work where they will be treated with contempt? How do we make it attractive to be in physical pain because of the demands of the job? That’s what’s really going on when we suggest that adequate benefits might discourage people from seeking jobs.
The alternative of course would be to make sure all jobs provide a living wage. We could reconsider shift lengths, and night work and other health-destroying job issues. We could try and reduce commutes and let more people work from home. If work was interesting, nicer, better paid, more rewarding, then being on benefits would be less attractive. But, how are we to extract value for the shareholders if we don’t exploit the workers? How can we maintain the hugely inflated salaries of the management if we don’t keep the cleaners in poverty?
If we make being out of work as unpleasant and hazardous as possible, there’s every incentive for people to take any job they can get, no matter how awful. If, on the other hand, we assume that people have a right to decent standards of living, and that working yourself to death for a pittance isn’t acceptable, we create a situation in which companies have to make jobs more attractive – better pay, better hours, decent breaks, actual perks.
A weak welfare state enables exploitation and puts the profits of the few ahead of the needs of the many. Decent welfare support pushes up standards, which in turn will reduce the number of people made ill by work, which is cheaper for the state. What if we stop using our tax money to facilitate exploitation, and use it more compassionately and efficiently to keep people healthier and improve quality of life for everyone?