Should people be made to work?

The whole welfare question is one that I oscillate back and forth on, in that on the one hand I am acutely aware that there are real people out there who cannot go to work for a whole host of good reasons, and yet on the other hand I am aware that we’ve already run up too many promises we can’t pay for as a society and that one way or the other we’re going to have to deal with that — which will mean throwing people on their own abilities somewhere in that process.

Scary stuff, knowing you can’t have both. Or is that true?

Over the years, I have become very interested in the notion of a community (from extended families through neighbourhoods on up to nations and multi-national blocs) as a floor that we agree to place under difficulty. There are taxes I mind paying, but I don’t mind paying for effective floors that make some action possible.

Take Canadian health care, for instance. Yes, there are innumerable things wrong with the system, things that are slowly bankrupting us trying to maintain. But the universal single-payer system does provide a floor under the entrepreneur, or the unemployed person who undertakes some venture as a bridge. It makes it safer to take a risk.

What I’d like to see (to deal with those who can’t work) is a universal annual income as well, instead of the patchwork of welfare, employment insurance and disability payments we have now. We could even roll the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Supplements, etc. into it as well.

Again, this is a floor under society. It could be administered through the tax system (since it’s universal, we need employ no one to check on whether someone “deserves” it; we need only use an existing base that touches everyone). It guarantees you have some money to live on when none else exists.

Would it be luxurious? Obviously not (but then, neither is most of Canadian health care…) But again the entrepreneur would have a floor, the unemployed person a floor, the disabled person a floor (without getting into long arguments about whether the person is “truly” disabled or not).

We wouldn’t worry about earnings beyond that base. Go ahead and add to it if you can! Even if all you can add is one dollar, that’s better for you — and better for the rest of us, too.

Indeed, the floor of a universal income would allow us to, for instance, do away with a great deal of other bureaucracy. Minimum wages, for instance, could be scrapped.

Before you start screaming, think for a moment. Let’s say that floor was substantial enough for a poor, but meaningful, life — say $20,000. (Ontario’s $10.25/hr minimum wage, for a full-time job of 37.5 hours/week, would give you slightly less than $20,000!) What a minimum wage gives, it takes away with work that’s no longer worth paying for. (Have you ever wondered why there are so many young people forced into unpaid internships — or about those BC organizations that churn the lower “starting wage” before the person can rack up the hours necessary to get the “minimum”?)

I might never pay to have many things done even at $10.25/hr, but there’s lots I might pay for at less. Junior high and high school students, on bicycles, making deliveries after school, for instance, as a courtesy to my customers. I don’t need much of it, and it isn’t worth much to me (the customers could carry their shopping away with them) but I’d pay for the courtesy at, let’s say $4.00/hr, for the goodwill it would bring.

See how opportunities leave when we try to force pay upward — and how they can be created if we instead provide a floor?

For some people — artists, perhaps — that floor would be a valuable-enough trade-off to allow them to practice their art without needing anything more, so instead of spending hours as a minimum wage barista or waiter they’re in their studio, working, on works that may one day pay them off handsomely. For others — those that can’t hold a job for health reasons — it gives them some stability (no more endless medical appointments that are difficult to get to and tiring to undertake to “maintain” your “disabled” status).

A society must live within its means, or it cannot be sustained. On the other hand, it need not be a mean place. That’s why I think the opening to work should always be there — and a floor put under all of us.

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