I often spend my time involved in things which are improbable, if not fantastical. Only this weekend, I was engaged in a lovely game with my 3 year old in which a nice flat stone he’d found was standing in for the Millennium Falcon. It stood me in good stead when, later that day, I came across an online questionnaire circulated by the Conservative Party. In the interests of fair disclosure I am obliged to say that I am as likely to vote for Messrs Cameron & Co as Han Solo is to be found flying a small pebble, but I thought it might be of use to them to know that the entire country is not obsessed above all else with paying off the credit card and kicking out the lodgers (or whatever household metaphors are currently being used to portray the nation’s ills).
As it happens, they’ll never benefit from my opinions, because you had to put name and email address on the bottom before submitting it, and the prospect of spam mail from Michael Gove was enough to put me off the internet forever. It was still worth doing, though, because it was the first time I saw an explicit reframing of “welfare” as “making work pay”.
Current policies are undoubtedly aimed at making work pay and undoubtedly succeed, in the sense that something will always be more than nothing. What matter if work is scant, inaccessible or insecure? If you have no other source of income, then work, comparatively, will always be financially worthwhile.
Of course, though, it does matter if work is scant, inaccessible or insecure. It matters if there are no jobs available, or the only ones which are are beyond you, in terms of your qualifications or your capacity to travel or be available 24/7. It matters if you’re not in a position to work at all, temporarily or forever, through ill-health or caring responsibilities. It matters if, even if you do work, you bring home too little to live on while the safety net of welfare is snipped away from you strand by strand.
Do some people cheat the system and avoid work in order to live on benefits? Of course they do (though unless you’re on the fiddle the sums involved aren’t an attractive proposition), but recasting our entire social security structure in order to shake them out smacks somewhat of closing down Tesco because kids have been pinching KitKats from the bottom shelves.
There is a second (related) issue here, though; an increasing emphasis on work as an absolute good. I entirely agree that work, in the abstract, is a Good Thing. It is right that people should be educated and supported into paid employment which rewards them with purpose, security and the means by which to live independently. I believe it is right that by working, people should in turn make a proportionate financial contribution to the services that we all use, and do so in the knowledge that destitution does not await them if ever they can’t work for whatever reason. That’s like the ABC of Citizenship.
What’s more, whether from a surfeit of Victorian novels or a semi-religious upbringing, I’m a subscriber to “the Devil makes work for idle hands” school of thought. I like being busy, or occupied at least. I know from personal experience that feeling without purpose – having no structure to my days, no apparent reason to get up in the morning, no sense of any kind of achievement by the evening – leaves me exhausted, miserable and perversely disinclined to any kind of activity.
Where I struggle is with the idea that paid work confers some kind of moral virtue in and of itself. I choose not to work outside of the home for the time being in order to be at home when my children are small, and I’m lucky to be able to choose. I keep coming back to this theme in my blog, though, because I feel such a cultural undercurrent of opprobrium for being economically inactive. I am strong enough to withstand it, but so many others, who’ve had no choice in their circumstances, aren’t.
I know that many of my days now are a million times more productive than those spent filing paperclips and dictating memos; if I were paid by output, I should be earning far more than I ever could have done in an office. How can I calculate which is more valuable, though; how can I tell where my contribution has been greatest?
I went for a coffee at my church’s cafe this morning, and met up with one of the men who lives in a local home for those with learning difficulties. He was on his way out with his companion to do the weekly food shop. Sometimes he helps in the cafe. He proudly showed us at church a few weeks ago the paintings he has been doing at his art class. He has a productive, happy, dignified life and he has his own, well-loved place in his small community. He will never be employed, he will never, no matter how much welfare is recast as being aimed at “making work pay”, be a net financial contributor to society. It sickens me to my stomach that this reframing brings with it the implication that he may therefore not be worthy of support.
Because that, surely, is the logical conclusion of all of this. Be seen at all times to work and to pay into a system which increasingly won’t pay you back. Don’t lose your job. Don’t become ill. Don’t have an accident. Don’t have parents who become elderly and frail. Don’t “choose” to have a child who has extra needs of any kind. If this sounds, in its turn, improbable or even fantastical, bear in mind that the Department of Health has already proposed that the cost of treatment be balanced against the wider “societal benefit” of curing that person.We already have the use of “taxpayer” and “hardworking people” when what is really meant is “society”. We’re already on that road.
Work should pay, unquestionably. That is its primary purpose. Making work pay should be an end in itself, though, not an excuse for eroding social security. Work should never, ever, come to be used as a substitute for worth.