You will have had trouble avoiding this essay by Linda Tirado in the last few weeks, as it has been all over the place. And it is a really great piece which I wholeheartedly agree with. What surprised me about it was the backlash she received accusing her of not being qualified to write about poverty because of her background. This struck somewhat of a chord with me, as I have been known to receive similar treatment. For reference, let it be said that I was brought up very comfortably in a large house in Devon, went to a fee paying school and was afforded every opportunity available to a young white male growing up in the 1980s and 90s. I did not make good decisions, I spurned all those marvellous opportunities that were available at the time, and I found myself spending most of the 2000s living in a council house, being paid minimum wage and grabbing every gig I could play that paid a few pennies just to keep my head above water, and that was coming up a bit in the world from where I was as the millennium turned. So yes, I sympathise absolutely with Linda Tirado.
Let me be clear, I am not looking for sympathy (awwww, did the poor little rich boy fall off his silver spoon?) I am just trying to point out my fairly unusual viewpoint from the middle ground. I have worked with the proper poor working class grafters (underneath them mostly), I have been stoned with the long term unemployed who have no intention of ever working, and I have got drunk with velvet-clad fops called Rupert and Bertie at yacht clubs (no really, it was on the Isle of Wight). Many of my school mates have gone on to own small chunks of the country, and plenty of others have done even worse than me.
I have been pretty lucky really, but I can’t make it much plainer, if it were not for my family I would not have done so well. Had I not inherited a not insignificant amount of money from my Grandparents, I would still be drowning in debts from ill-advised business ideas of the late 90s. Had I not had that expensive education, my employers would not have taken a chance on letting me leave the grunt work out in the warehouse and take up a better position fiddling with computers. Luck is everything in this life sadly. Unfortunately, there are others of my acquaintance who believe there success is all down to their own hard graft, and that the poor just aren’t trying hard enough. Despite owing their positions entirely to the family they were born into, and the benefits that that brings (not actual benefits, you know what I mean).
Where we are all going wrong is that we are looking for scapegoats, people to blame for all our misfortunes. The idle rich, and the idle poor, one avoids paying taxes so we have to pay more, and the other takes all the taxes we are paying for doing nothing. Both are probably myths dreamed up by the media to give us something to fight about, rather than trying to actually sort out the mess and end all this inequality. The majority are still people who just want to earn a living doing something they either enjoy, or are good at, and be valued enough to get an actual living wage which does not need to be topped up by a benefit system that continually makes mistakes and scares people into paying back what is to the system, an infinitely small amount of money, but to the person who didn’t realise they had been overpaid, an insurmountable and impossible amount to find. I am looking at you working tax credits. You suck.
I know of a couple who were hit with a repayment bill of over £6000 one year, due to a clerical error that they hadn’t noticed, not everybody has the time or ability to scrutinise every bank statement and bit of paperwork that comes through their door. Compared to the supposed benefit frauds we read of in the Sun, and the tax dodging efforts of merchant bankers we hear of from the Guardian this is nothing. But to them, it was more than half a salary, and yes they were both working full time. If they could afford to pay it back, then they wouldn’t have been claiming working tax credits in the first place.
Working tax credits should never have existed, if you’re not earning enough to live on, you shouldn’t be paying any tax in the first place, the whole system was nuts as soon as it came in. This is not a “friend of a friend” story, or something from a newspaper, these are real people, friends of mine, whose names I am leaving out of this from common decency, especially as they are still paying it off 6 years later and have vowed never to claim anything they are entitled to ever again, despite still having a little less than nothing left over at the end of the month to build up the debts a little more. This kind of penny pinching madness, from a department that needs to justify its own budget makes no sense at all. This article details a bit more about the unpleasantness, and I was unable to find a figure on how much it costs to run the privatiseddebt collectors who are contracted to collect the money.
With mountains like this to climb, how is anybody supposed to live? We are told to go out, get qualifications and improve our lot by getting a better job. But when we don’t value those who serve our drinks, empty our bins, clean our hotel rooms, listen to our interminable moaning on telephone helplines and stack our shelves enough to even accept that they have real jobs. Then something is properly fucked. Most people in those careers (and they are careers) have to work more than one job to make ends meet, and are too tired after all the working to take a night course, even if they wanted to. But why should they have to? This whole “work ethic” thing is nuts, you are not valuable unless you are producing a thing that makes somebody money. This is not true, time is more important than money. The important thing is to make sure nobody is working for less money than they can live on. And why on earth does the market value footballers above barmen? Because the market has become a sentient monster out of human control perhaps? We could all work less hours, for the same money, and thus create more jobs, as more people are needed to come in and work the days that others are not any more. The more difficult your job, the less time you have to spend at it, and your team get a higher pay rate than those who have chosen to do easier and less stressful jobs. They would have to work more days as well. Then if you want more time and a little more money, you get the qualifications and improve your lot. Sadly the dividends paid to shareholders, and the gold plated CEO bonuses might have to go down a bit, but overall, this would not be a bad thing.
As to why work no longer pays, that is still down to the enormous cost of housing these days. The sky-high benefit bills you hear of are largely down to housing benefit going to commercial landlords (mostly MPs amusingly) if they are true at all, so when you have a job, and have to pay your own rent, suddenly you miss that little bit of money you didn’t have to spend on rent before, and so the dole queue suddenly seems better. This is not the fault of the benefit system, this is the fault of the low paying jobs, and the madness of the property markets. We need to stop treating the laws of economics in the same way as the laws of Physics, economics is entirely made up by people and those laws can be broken and swept away as easy as you like. Really, change is possible if we all agree (although we never will).
(While I’m on economics, the other problem is that nobody seems to understand it at all. Budgeting for an entire country, when a lot of what you spend out results in more coming in, is not the same as budgeting for your household income, where everything that goes out, stays gone. Not paying the social security budget is not going to make sure you can pay back the national debt, and the less you pay public sector workers, the less they spend, and the less tax you take, it is a system that defies logic. It would seem that even George Osborne has trouble discerning the difference between macro-economics and micro-economics if you believe this article.)
The citizen’s income argument is also very good, the Green Party are advocating a monthly income for EVERY SINGLE PERSON in the country, ensuring that we all have enough to live on regardless of where we come from, or what we do. If you want to have nice things and go on holiday, then you go out and work for it. It is an excellent idea, and would probably work. We do have a society that makes us need to buy things, and go to places. We are constantly bombarded with adverts for gadgets, cars, clothes, perfumes, aspirational slippers and emotion inducing foodstuffs that we simply must have. You are nobody without a mobile phone, a computer of some description, a TV, DVD player, a car and a cupboard filled with essential fennel and cracked black peppercorns these days. And a fortnight away somewhere sunny is a human right now isn’t it? So people are going to do those zero hour contract minimum wage jobs to get the extra cash. Particularly when it will no longer affect their benefit payments.
Our current problem is that we are all looking to work out exactly what the problem is, and who we can blame for it, rather than just accepting that everything is not alright, and trying to redesign the whole system from the ground up. Everybody likes to blame the government, and shout that all the politicians are lying bastards, and they’re all the same as each other. But nobody (except the incredibly wealthy, and casually racist Nigel Farage) is getting off their arses and standing for government. We live in a democracy, anybody can stand, if you want to change things, get involved, stop blaming the plasticine faced interchangeable publicity addicts, and start a fucking revolution. We get the politicians we deserve, if you are one of those who says “sack the lot of them” and shrug, you can sack them, you put them there, this is a democracy, your vote counts, use it, and use it well.
We’ve all got our heads in the sand, and nobody is admitting anything is their own fault, we blame economic forces, dodgy politicians, ruthless, faceless corporations, greedy bankers, fat lazy dole scroungers, nasty racist political parties, crazy leftie do-gooding liberals, and occasionally, kittens. The rich believe that by fighting for the rights of the corporations they are saving people’s jobs, while those people whose jobs that they are saving, believe they are just lining their own pockets. We need more communication, better unions, and better employers. And that’s just to start with, if we all started talking, and listening to both sides, we might have a chance in hell of getting better, but if we keep shouting, and blaming each other, then nothing will change, and eventually there will just be one person sitting on all the money wondering where the next bottle of Veuve-Clicquot is coming from, and who is going to clean up afterwards.