And let’s now discuss the dole and ‘dignity’… August 16, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics.
After Conall O Morain yesterday, let’s now consider another piece from the SBP by Sean O’Sullivan who is ‘an entrepreneur and venture capitalist and appears on RTE’s Dragons’ Den’ and is ‘chairman of the Entrepreneurship Forum’.
For O’Sullivan opines about dole and dignity.
He tells us that he grew up in the US and that for years his family was on public benefits.
It was hardscrabble times. You can be poorer in the United States than it is possible to be in Ireland. For example, the same social benefits payments as that extended to a single Joe Public in Ireland would push a family of three above the poverty line (Joe, Patty and baby Jane) in the United States. A single person on a minimum wage job in Ireland earns more than what would qualify for the “poverty line” for a family of four in the United States.
We have a much broader, and safer, safety net here.
On balance, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I think it’s a question worth asking.
At my first opportunity, and before I could afford it (I was about 27 years old), I went back to the social benefits office and repaid the $63,000 in benefits we as a family had received during the six-year period two decades prior. It’s not a thing people are forced to do, and it’s not something people do often. But I share this story because I know what it feels like to be on the public benefit, and the sense of dignity and self-worth that is restored when you get off of it.
I think this is desperately confused as to the purpose of benefits and what his rights and responsibilities were as a citizen. In my view it wasn’t for him to ‘repay’ those benefits that had been actually paid to his family. His getting into the workforce and paying taxes was all the ‘repayment’ necessary. Because in a mixed-capitalist economy benefits are vital to tide people across periods where they are unable to find or have work.
Moreover, and this is not unimportant, he ignores the point that few at the age of 27, or indeed at any age, would be in a position to hand over $63,000, an enormous sum at that time given that he is now in his late 40s or early 50s.
His dignity was repurchased – perhaps cheaply from his perspective, but in a way that would be impossible for most. And in doing so it merely raises the bar for others and – and this I think is fairly pernicious – uses value judgements about how people are meant to feel about benefits. For him, and this comes across loud and clear, it is something close to a matter of shame that he was on benefits, not that they were – as long as he was willing to seek work, and that work was available, an entirely rational quid pro quo for citizens in the sort of economy we work in.
I’ve been on the dole a few times in the ROI and once in the UK. I’ve never felt any shame about being on it or felt that I lacked dignity due to being on it. Quite the opposite. It was a relief. Where my self-worth took a knock was in not working full time and having no sense of a shape of the future, and that’s a significant distinction. His elision of dole and dignity is the mistake of blaming the symptom rather than the cause. It wasn’t the fact that I was on the dole that meant I had no job at the time, I had no job and therefore I was on the dole. And at all times I did everything I could to get back into full time paid employment. As do most.
Sure, there’s a tiny minority who don’t particularly want to work, but as evidenced during the Celtic Tiger years when there was using generally accepted economic definitions ‘full employment’ it is clear that when jobs are available the overwhelming majority will opt to take them up.
And so I’d argue that his entire thesis is built on a misperception, and one that while held widely in some circles, is quite personal to him and his experience.
And unfortunately it runs like a thread through this piece:
Can we give people who are on the live register their dignity back by welcoming them into our workforce? There already is such a programme: it’s called JobBridge, and I can tell you, there are good people on it. We employ two people in one of my companies in Cork, and they are doing good work and earning their way into new careers. It costs very little to the company, as the workers are paid via their social benefit plus a small stipend. It’s an internship opportunity.
Well that’s all very well, though there are obvious problems when business and state interact in such areas which may predicate against the creation of full-time well paid jobs. The line about ‘internship opportunity’ is deeply telling.
But again there’s a confusion here too.
His approach appears to implicitly suggest that it is the dole that is the problem in terms of job creation. But that doesn’t make sense because, again consider the experience of the Celtic Tiger years when the numbers fell precipitously and then when the economic crisis arrived the numbers increased. People went on the dole because they lost jobs, not because they chose to do so.
Now in fairness I don’t disagree with some of the following, though as noted previously this week those who place too much faith in entrepreneurship may well be disappointed in the context of the RoI economy.
That said, we’re still not thinking broadly enough. Entrepreneurship is the main generator of jobs in any economy. Small indigenous businesses create virtually all new jobs in the country.
Could there be a programme to enable people who are on the public benefit to either start their own businesses or join up and contribute to other start-ups?
Good ideas there at the end. But check the following out:
Right now 400,000 people are on the live register. If Ireland is going to boom again, 75 per cent of them need to get off it.
That’s fair enough. It’s almost a statement of fact. But the following isn’t.
The safety net has become a safety trap. It’s what Americans call an “attractive nuisance”. This is something which, like a shiny object, draws people to it, even though it’s at their own peril. Like a river embankment that draws children to it to play, only to slide dangerously downward.
Just so, with all the best of intentions, Ireland has designed social supports and labour policies into a social-engineering version of the Eagles’ Hotel California: people may want to check out, but considering the surefire benefits of the live register against the risks of available employment, it makes little sense to leave.
Again, this is simply incorrect. When work was available the numbers on the live register fell. There’s no point in complaining about ‘safety traps’ or ‘attractive nuisance’. And again the history of the 1990s demonstrates that people were more than willing when well paid permanent jobs were available to leave social welfare and go out and work.
That this has to be stated is dispiriting in the extreme, but it is an useful insight into the perception of some in this society as to the underlying dynamics at work.
Perceptions which are, to be blunt, wrong.
He continues in a more emollient fashion:
Nobody – well, almost nobody – goes onto the live register with the intention of staying there. Nearly everybody wants to work a meaningful job. It’s not as if people want to be in the unfortunate and soul-destroying place of receiving public benefit without producing work that benefits others. And, benefits-bashing myths aside, it’s not as if social benefits allow people to live large. They don’t.
But… isn’t his argument implicitly that benefits are too much. Otherwise how can he explain the logic of his own argument that social welfare and benefits are a ‘trap’?
He doesn’t say, but check this out:
We must enact meaningful reforms to the social benefits schemes to require – or at least incentivise – those on jobseeker’s benefits and jobseeker’s allowances to work for the good of the country.
No, not that bit, but the following:
If we were to model the US, we could simply cut the benefits of the unemployed by over 50 per cent, and see whether that would cause a scramble for employment that would instantly propel the country to a much higher level of productivity and efficiency.
This is moonshine, and he must know it. We couldn’t ‘simply’ do any such thing. And where would this ‘employment’ come from? Moreover even taking the US route there’s no evidence that it is immune to the troughs of capitalism, quite the opposite, and its citizenry are arguably in a worse position on the whole than those in societies which have better social safety nets.
If that’s too draconian…
…we might continue to pay people the benefits they are receiving, but encourage them to work 50 per cent of a full-time job in return for these relatively generous benefits. Then the challenge would be to allocate meaningful work to people. This sounds like an impossible, insoluble problem – just the kind of problem that we must in fact confront.
In fairness this is a genuine problem, and clearly training and retraining is necessary. But sgain the problem arises, what jobs are those individuals who would work for their ‘relatively generous benefits’ doing? Are they inadvertently (from their perspective) removing jobs that could offer full time employment.
Some people say the jobs just aren’t there. And that’s true for specific industries. Then again, consider a friend of mine from Spain who recently found three jobs in the course of a few days in Ireland. Yes, the jobs were “beneath” her, working in retail and in childcare and as a waitress, and her professional qualifications and college education made her disappointed to take them. But she took two of the jobs. And now she is on the career ladder, out in the workforce and making contacts that will likely lead to further opportunities.
That’s all very well, and of course there are jobs available in any economy even during periods of mass unemployment. But it’s not simply about people taking jobs ‘beneath’ them, though how very telling that he couches it in those terms. Because many of those on the dole currently come from what are quite ordinary everyday jobs in enterprises that failed. But are there sufficient jobs in retail, in childcare, in restaurants? He’s no fool. He knows that after five years of recession and depression, wage cuts or stagnation, price and tax increases, failed companies and massive unemployment, demand has fallen dramatically across the economy.
And yet, throughout this piece, for all the caveats in one paragraph, the clear impression is that the responsibility lies with those on benefit, with all their supposed lack of dignity and self-worth.
And what of the basic problem that if one is on the dole reading his article isn’t exactly going to improve morale, increase dignity, enable self-worth, now is it?