In Defence of the Long-Term Unemployed

Work Secretary John Hutton promises a crackdown on the long-term unemployed. He says a ‘hardcore’ of benefit claimants are spending years on the dole and should be forced to take opportunities or have their benefits cut.

Whereas in fact we’d be better off just giving them their dole and leaving them alone.

Since full employment was killed by the double whammy of industrial automation and female emancipation, there has been a permanent base level of unemployment. There are now more people than jobs, and there always will be.

So, what do we do with those spare people? A few of them are perfectly capable of living on 40 or 50 quid a week and don’t need hopes of a richer future to make them happy or a job to give them a sense of worth. Many of these will be avoiding work, so the benefit office staff are fighting an uphill battle to make them look for a job.

Meanwhile those genuinely struggling to find employment, who really do need help in training or appraising their skills or whatever, have less resources devoted to them.

Insisting that all those without a job play this game of musical chairs for the few positions available is plain stupid. Why not ask those on the dole if they’re happy with their circumstances? If they answer yes, issue an automatic cheque and leave them alone. The administrative costs would plummet, and resources could be redirected.

Admission that full employment is never going to happen again is acceptance of bald fact. So we should adjust our welfare programmes accordingly. Forcing help on to those who don’t want it is an exercise in futility; doing it at the expense of those who really do want help is an exercise in cruelty.

But why should I pay taxes for people to do nothing? For the same reason that I pay taxes for maternity wards and schools despite being a non-parent; the same reason I want to subsidise transport and care for elderly and disabled people despite being neither. We want to live in a society where people have the basics of life as a guarantee.

Even those who have a work ethic must concede there aren’t enough jobs to allow everyone to pay their way from their own wages. So, do we give the people at the bottom those basics, or do we let them starve?

If the starvation option doesn’t make you squeamish, then think of it as insurance. If you create lives without enough to support themselves, they come and steal from those who have more.

Rather like the way the NHS, as well as being kind to the patient, solves many social problems, so we should provide other necessities to people as part of broader and partly selfish interests.

This leads us towards the concept of a Citizens Income. I first found this via the Green Party.

They saw that we give out Child Benefit automatically. Every child’s parents or guardians receive it, irrespective of their means. It may seem daft giving millionaires money for their children, but not only does it give all of society a feeling of guaranteed security for children, it is actually quite cost-effective. The administrative costs of means-testing it could well outweigh any savings made doing so.

By the same token, if we just gave out Citizens Income – a basic payment to cover the essentials of life, effectively Dole For All, for every citizen – we’d remove the enormous administrative costs of unemployment (including paying to chase people who don’t want jobs).

It would replace means-tested benefits like Job Seekers Allowance, Sickness Benefit and Income Support as well as non-means tested ones like Child Benefit and the State Pension. It removes the poverty trap of making people poor as they step out of the benefit system. A Citizens Income must be feasible as long as the total wealth circulating in the economy is greater than the cost of providing everyone with basic needs.

Far-fetched and far-out it may seem. But then, the impossible cost was the most persuasive point of the nation’s doctors who took a fervently anti-NHS stance prior to 1945. Before that, it was levelled against the idea of free education for all.

A Citizens Income is a logical step on from those advances in social justice. It follows in our tradition of opening up opportunity to all irrespective of their background, of trying to set a humane basic level of existence for everyone. The Tory years gave the idea a severe beating, sure, but the principle is too deeply rooted to be so swiftly undone. There are too many of us who know for ourselves the benefits of universal education and the welfare state. It’s time to take our position seriously as its upholders rather than just its beneficiaries. It’s not just to be preserved; it’s to be expanded.

Free education and the NHS liberated us, making us all much more able to find a life of real meaning, and society has seen not just the relief of suffering but positive benefits on an unforeseen scale.

Similarly, freeing us from the fear of unemployment can not just be an eradication of the bad aspects of the subject in hand, but also the path to new models of social structure. If we remove the need for work we will see more clearly its purpose.

It could make us square up to the spiritual hollowness and ecological apocalypse of consumerism, make us rediscover measurements of self worth that have been buried under two centuries of being treated like industrial components and create a society that feels more like people and less like competing rivals.

  1. john b said:

    Fuck yeah! This may be the first time that a proper-socialist-like and Tim Worstall have agreed on stuff.

    Except for the bit about freeing us from the spiritual hollowness of capitalism. That requires telling your own kids there ain’t no Santa Claus, and sadly nobody sane [*] is willing to make that sacrifice.

    [*] understandably. I’ve met kids; Santa Claus makes them shut up; if you’re a recent parent anything which makes them shut up is a good thing; therefore Santa Claus is a good thing.

  2. Kirsty said:

    I think it’s an excellent idea.

    Anyone with sufficient drive and interest in earning extra money will continue to do so. Those who don’t want to or are unable to work in a paid job would be freed to work in a voluntary capacity if they chose. I do believe that the majority of people will chose to do something with themselves. sure some people won’t but I think that most of us would eventually get bored and would join community groups or start our own businesses or something.

    It would make life easier for artists and musicians when they were starting out – when it was easier to get, the dole used to be known as ‘the alternative arts council’. This would stimulate communities at a grass roots level.

    If you’re already rich and feel embarrassed at receiving the money – well, give it to charity, they’d undoubtedly be thrilled to have it. Again, money would be spread around a bit more and that would benefit communities.

    Of course, a lot of the DSS people would need to be retrained (excuse me while I laugh hysterically for a moment) but I’m sure there are other useful things they could be doing.

    I can’t imagine it ever actually happening unfortunately but then I’m sure that people didn’t believe the NHS would ever happen.

  3. G. Tingey said:

    Right – and wrong.

    Unemployment in this country would be under 250 000 if there had not been large numbers of Easter-EU-immigrants let in.
    As it is, they are here, and VERY CONVENEINTLY both maintaining a pool of unemployed labour, and keeping the wage rates down.

    And I speak as a traditional very left-wing conservative, or right-wing labour ite …..

    Then, I’m bitter.
    I have an MSc in Engineering, a BSc in Physics, and an HNC in electronics, and I’ve been effectively unemplyed for over 5 years now – oh, and I’m almost 61.

    Skills shortage? No.
    Nicely submissive crawlers, aged under 35, who will take the shit wages offered-shortage? Yes.

  4. j. johnson said:

    having a citizen’s income is basically the same as what we have now in the way of – the minimum income the law says you are entitled to live on, and whether that’s in the form of JSA, income support etc., it really doesn’t matter.

    what is important here are the reasons why people work. The main reason why people work is because work gives people in society something to do.

    look at it this way – when a pharoah of ancient egypt looked down on his peoples he saw them robbing, raping, killing, blackmailing, having affairs, basically fighting and wanting to kill each other.

    So he thought now how can i stop this kind of anarchy? I know get them working and with that he told his people’s to build him a pyramid or 2 etc!

    Take away work from the human equation and you would see more and more destruction and misery in our society – afterall human beings are mere animals.

    Work gives people a reason to get up in the morning and reduces the risk of them slitting their wrists, or rowing with their partners. Work gives people a reason to communicate with one another as no-one really wants to talk about their own personal problems.

    At the end of the day humans are really an unhappy bunch and if it were not for work they would be even unhappier!

    It’s just a pity a lot of workers don’t see it this way and are more concerned about their own bitterness toward work when they see people who do not work

  5. Between:
    work gives people in society something to do
    Work gives people a reason to get up in the morning…

    j.johnson; I’m genuinely shocked by how brazenly materialistic your viewpoint is. The implication of what you’re saying is that the only things worth doing, or the only things people will see as reasonable activities, are those that generate an economic return (i.e. what we know as “work”).

    Many people (me, and most of my friends) have no problem finding things other than “work” to fill and fulfill their lives.

    Human beings are indeed animals. But the idea that they are “mere animals” strikes me as being a deeply impoverished view of our species. And the idea that the best thing to do with us “mere animals” is to structure our world so that we spend our entire lives building metaphorical pyramids for the pharoahs is a perfect recipe for increasing that impoverishment.

    If not for work we’d be less happy? Speak for yourself. Without a shadow of a doubt the best decision I ever made was to quit my (extremely lucrative) career and concentrate upon more important things. I’m far happier and I’m taking way less blood-pressure medication.

  6. Hambrough said:

    We already pay people to do nothing all day. Some of them may be painting flowers or writing sonnets. Most of them are not: they are getting fat and ill and watching the worst TV. Without something (work or play) to do their lives become plotless and amoral. An alarming number will spend their days intoxicated. Not only do I not want to support that because it’s my money they are spending but also it’s immoral to encourage people to waste their time and my money. As for people who do paint flowers and write sonnets: great, but why do I have to pay for it?

  7. frog said:

    I’m longterm unemployed while also declaring my part-time earnins to the dole and NI people. (important here as penalties for employing blacklabour are severe.Keeps the Authorities off me back,too )

    I like the idea of retraining the DSS people — being an all rounder, maybe I’d get a fulltime job doing that . (G.O.A.K.)

    Hambrough – I see your point,to a degree, knowing well the good feeling of the status of being a fully working member of society. And the compulsion to get out of bed and “do it”.

    Four years ago , at 56, I was taken on as a roofer and hacked it for 8 months beginning in winter at -8° C .
    Sweeping chimneys as part of the job, our biggest tips came from the poorer parts of society, peasants, those with most repeck for the under-paid ‘real’ worker.

    Agreeing with G Tingey, paying shitwages may make the CBI happy, but what does it do to the fabric of society ? 40years ago at uni, we looked at automation, Karl Marx, we foresaw the creation of an Underclass.


    A few days ago I read an acccount of a brit family taking the train, beer spilt and cans rollin around the floor, yobs being rowdy and unpleasant and a little menacing.

    Well, maybe they had jobs ? But there were no conductors on the bloody train, and the animals ruled. Somebody had decided it was more cost-effective that way.

    Way back everybody had a job, and the violence was confined to saturday night out from the pub. A very violent culture, those brits, we brits.

    Changing a culture is not done swiftly, as blair has (perhaps) noticed in Iraq.

    A Citizens Income is a brilliant theoretical idea, but the implementation would probably be hell.

    Regional differences in housing costs particularly would be a nightmare.

    As would deciding, at a given date, who was eligible.

    Laugh or cry ? The ‘leitmotif’ of so much speechifying these days is from an argument of scarcity, as tho UK were a very POOR country, when it’s actually rolling in dough.

    Simple. The distribution is all wrong. I hate to think what my nephew at GoldmanSachs had as a Christmas bonus, he’s a bright kid…

    A Humane Basic Level of Existence makes sense , well said Merrick.

    Hambrough doesn’t whinge about John Hutton being paid a good whack for attacking the unemployed, tho the cowardly creature would be more at his level on a building site or a callcentre. Life would be tough, somehow the poorer elements in society are better at identifying bullshit .

    Hod-carrier? x ?

    The Blair School of Government has been laughed right out of court, TeeHee, but according to Ham, Blair is OK . He did a ‘job’ you see, the ‘proof’ being he had a salary, Which is a guarantee that one is worthwhile.

    With a Citizens Income, he might have been quite a success as a touring actor.