Inequality

I had a bit of a thought about the problem of inequality. Maybe for some, it’s not a problem. Maybe for some, there’s no fair way to tackle it. Either way, even if inequality itself isn’t a problem, its effects very much are, and therefore it needs to be tackled, and there’s always a way.

So how would I tackle it? Firstly, I would want to recognise the value of the human being, rather than their socio-economic status. We all have inherent value, and our biological traits dictate that value, not our parents’ wallets.

A particular scheme I came up with requires a billionaire philanthropist or two. Or of course, a movement that those people want to get behind and put their well-known names to. Currently we have huge businesses and wealth being passed from family member to family member. This means that the recipient hasn’t really earned any of the wealth being granted by parents, and those recipients have not had to compete to earn their status.

What I would do, were I a successful billionaire with a massive business empire, is grab as many people as I can from the ‘lowest’ echelons of society. I would seek out the people who have little or nothing, and I would show them how I became insanely wealthy. I would teach every single one everything I know about getting rich, and about my own strategies and tactics. This may seem redundant, in today’s world, because they’d never have a shot at it, but that’s where my own wealth would come into it. I would provide generously for their own upstarts, guiding their development, and funding their own ideas. At the end of the scheme, I would ask them to come up with some form of innovation to tackle social issues, and every participant would win something big. However, the very best among them would become my own heir, gaining my business and wealth.

See, I don’t think inequality can be solved through a forceful approach by government, but simply by sharing. The scheme above would affect thousands more than just the folks I took under my corporate wing, because of the ideas that they themselves finally got the chance to put out there. However, it begins by not taking people as a ‘number’. It begins by seeing that everybody contributes in some way, and everybody has something to offer.

By casting aside the delusion of there being ‘worthy’ people and ‘little people’, as opposites, and instead embracing the reality that many of the poorest are in fact much harder workers than the CEOs of the world. Also, they’re often smarter. There are many examples of people from humble backgrounds breaking through… how many are there who never get the opportunity to do so? Michael Faraday, a bookshop assistant from a poor background became one of the best-known chemists in history. William Herschel, who had no education in astronomy, made his own telescopes and discovered Uranus.

The base of what I’m getting at is that everybody has worth, as a human being. Everybody has a role to play in society. it makes sense that from this basis of near-equality, we should find a way to directly translate that into opportunity for wealth and prosperity, rather than keeping people poor, just because they happen to already be poor. By putting opportunities for growth into the hands of those without, we can only go forwards and grow.

There’s also Universal Basic Income, which I covered in an earlier post. Seems like the benefit system perpetuates inequality, by breeding contempt for claimants, because they’re perceived as being a drain on resources. UBI would tackle that, because everyone would get the same ‘welfare’.

What is poverty?

This is going to be the first of hopefully a long series looking at poverty and how to alleviate it. Also, I plan to add to it quite a lot, if I can.

As always, it’s a good idea to start by defining what it is you’re talking about. With such a wide-ranging and complex issue, it’s common for different people to have different basic definitions.

To me, poverty isn’t something as straightforward as not having money, or not having enough money. While that often (perhaps even usually) contributes, it’s not the single defining factor. For the sake of defining it in a single sentence, poverty is, to me, a lack of access to the services, social supports, and in some cases goods, that in any particular place would be identified as instrumental to sustaining a reasonable standard of living.

I generally disagree, due to this definition, with the compartmentalisation of ‘absolute poverty’ against ‘relative poverty’. Many people believe that poverty is a lack of money, which lends itself to saying people starving in far away countries are in poverty, while the lowest classes of society in rich countries are only in relative poverty, which, to many people, doesn’t count as poverty. My definition exposes that as flawed, because, while having little money is infinitely more wealthy than having no money, the definition of a reasonable standard of living is different for the two countries, putting both cases ‘in poverty’, regardless of how much money each has. The importance of this distinction is made clear when other factors are brought into account, as it is clear that people from either background can be facing the same struggles, despite differing situations with regard to money.

Universal Basic Income

This has been covered already by a lot of people in a lot of places, so it’s not an idea of mine, just something I support. What I’m planning to do with this post is to try to best explain how much I know, along with my opinions, and attempt to address any potential arguments. As always with my blog posts (and posts anywhere, really), I prefer a decent debate over just throwing my views to the wind and get ‘likes’ or whatnot. I’d much rather be challenged as well as get people agreeing with me, rather than getting nowhere singing to the choir.

Outline of Universal Basic Income (UBI)

A completely unconditional and universal income paid to all citizens of a country (in my case, the UK). Millionaire? You can get it. Single parent? You can get it. Destitute? you can get it. Six months left to live? You can get it (for the next six months). I think I’ve covered that aspect now. The amount to be paid is primarily left to whoever ends up having to organise the scheme, so I really don’t see myself or any other bloggers or journalists coming up with the ultimate best figures. I think it’s really unwise to talk figures unless you have full access to information about every last penny that’s currently being spent and what could be made available for UBI. It’s a good thing that people do make these estimates, but I am not going to, because frankly I’m not the chancellor of the exchequer. One thing’s practically agreed on all posts I’ve read, though. There’s enough money, if you wrangle it right. Which begs explanation, so….

How UBI should be funded

If everyone’s getting this same basic amount (which is generally placed level with, or higher than, current benefits rates), people aren’t going to need to be on benefits. It’s also mostly unconditional, so gone will be the days of people claiming jobseekers allowance, housing benefit, tax credits, employment and support allowance, tax credits, council tax benefit… and so on, ad nauseum. These departments would be crushed, gone, sayonara. Not only would the costs involved in paying all these benefits to people be now free to apply to UBI, but also the costs of paperwork, admin, means testers etc as well as the big contracts with companies like Atos and G4S. This means there’s technically more money freed up to give to people by scrapping half the DWP than there is with it in place. Even pensions would come under UBI, so that’s the whole DWP reduced to a single, small department, with little admin overhead. It’s not enough, though. Money would have to come from other places, too. More on that in other sections.

Wages

One argument for UBI is actually higher wages. Where people would no longer have to work in order to survive, they’d be more free to be selective about where they work. This would mean businesses would need to be attractive to would-be employees and so would push up their wage offerings. I personally disagree. My reason is that, because people would already be able to live without having to work, this would take the onus of providing a living/minimum wage off the employer. Though I do understand the argument of a competitive higher wage, and I agree it’s a sound argument, I think it’s far more likely that employers would want to massively decrease wages. This would make it far more affordable to hire more people. Especially new businesses, who might struggle with providing the minimum wage as is. With this in mind, coupled with the lower pressure to work to feed oneself, I could see UBI being conducive to a huge rise in new businesses forming. More workers and more new businesses means more taxpayers and more tax paid, which in turn means more revenue which might go back toward UBI.

Education

Without the pressure to immediately work to survive, people would be more inclined to do other things. Studying, for example. Studying to get off the bottom and skill up for a well paying job. This would be potentially made more difficult by the fact that without benefits, there’s probably not going to be course fee concessions and student grants. However, who knows, maybe there will. One would hope so. But then again with sensible saving and a willingness to work for it (remember, people would be working for profit and advancement, not survival, so the luxuries of a good education wouldn’t be quite so distant), what would stop them from reaching that?

Menial Jobs

I’ve seen arguments that people who don’t have to work to survive won’t do menial low paid jobs like working in retail or cleaning toilets or flipping burgers. While there is some sense in this argument, it’s not without its flaws. Who would want to go round collecting bins once a week if they had a choice? While the answer isn’t ‘nobody’, for sure, it’s a given that such a job isn’t likely to be popular. However, who would seriously want to clean their room? Who would want to do dishes once a day? Everyone does that even without getting paid for it already. It stands to reason that the people who would go round collecting bins once a week would be the people who don’t want a pile of stinking bins outside their homes. Obviously not everyone is going to do it, but the crappy jobs are pretty necessary, and there’s always going to be more than a few people willing to do them, even if it means taking one day a week off from the high flying career in aerospace engineering they studied for and are loving. That’s if such jobs (the bin collection, not the engineering) aren’t rapidly filled by automation.

Charity and volunteering

In my last post, I outlined an idea I had for a voluntary scheme where jobseekers help  the council (a source of willing binmen!). I can’t help but think people would be more inclined to take the time out to volunteer if they had a UBI. Maybe it’s just me, though. However, I struggle to believe I’m the only jobseeker in the UK who loves to help other people any way he can. I also struggle to believe it of people far better off than me. As things are, I understand, though. Long work weeks on low income means little time or energy for more work. A UBI would allow people to take more control over how much paid work they do, because they no longer need to. Taking a couple of days off to hang out at Oxfam raising money for other countries’ poor would be a lot easier, because it would no longer mean choosing between that and next week’s dinner. Obviously it would still need to be cleared with the boss, but that’s not really the point.

Equality

Where it’s completely unconditional, a UBI would be equal to all. The injustice-based argument where the unemployed get something for doing nothing where hard workers don’t get the same would be completely null and void. The hard workers would get the same UBI, the millionaires would get the same UBI, the unemployed would get the same UBI. Everybody wins, and everybody loses (the latter because it would be funded by tax, and, contrary to popular belief, everybody pays tax).

I probably have a lot more to add, but I’ve run out of brain for now. Going to publish and probably edit in some more if I think of more.

Workfare Alternative

I propose, as an alternative to workfare (non-voluntary voluntary work for people who don’t have volunteers on their regular staff. aka free labour), a council-assisted collaboration of jobseekers working to complete tasks that the council want done. For example, the jobseeker-led organisation (I’ll call it WorkShare for now) receives a direction from the council to upgrade an old playground in a park. WorkShare jobseekers collaborate to design a new playground, and submit several designs to the council. The council then choose one and work out the costs etc, and source up the materials needed, which they then give to WorkShare to install, along with any professional assistance (such as health and safety executives, people who carry the necessary qualifications to use the tools etc).

WorkShare jobseekers then set to work upgrading the playground. Internally, someone keeps track of who has been doing what, and the hours they’ve worked etc. After the work is completed, the council are politely asked if they would like to pay the jobseekers (on a pay-what-you-like/donation basis, rather than a like-for-like hourly rate). Jobseekers are not mandated to take part, and are not mandated to keep a predefined schedule, but are paid an amount based on how much they’ve contributed and how much was donated. Really, it’s mainly for the experience and getting back into a work routine (as Workfare is touted to be). As a secondary bonus to jobseekers, one day (minimum 5 hours) worked with WorkShare equals one week excused from the jobseeker’s agreement. Not so that people can slack off for a week if they’ve worked one day, I think people wouldn’t slack off. If they’re willing to go work for their benefits, it’s likely they’re already honouring their agreement anyway. However, it allows people to do the work in order to earn something, even if it’s not a wage, especially true if the council decide the amount they want to donate is zero.

The exemption from the jobseekers agreement doesn’t mean they don’t have to look for work, but mainly means they’re not going to be sanctioned or lose their benefit unless they come off JSA through finding work. 52 days of active WorkShare would mean secure JSA for a year (including the days worked, not starting after). Because really, they would have earned the money being productive for everyone around them, which means it’s no longer a free entitlement based on tireless job hunting, which is not productive.

Media Bias?

What is in the news right now:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2411781/Would-let-little-girl-pole-dance-Astonishingly-new-child-fitness-craze-embraced-parents.html

http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/sport/football/5115816/Revealed-Wayne-Rooneys-horror-gash-Manchester-United.html

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/sep/04/rachel-manning-shahidul-ahmed-guilty

What is (rather conspicuously) not in ANY of the news right now:
http://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/five-government-departments-mobbed-in-hugely-successful-day-of-action-by-and-for-disabled-people/

The protests were not a spur of the moment thing. I knew they were going to happen way back in June or July. There was also a little coverage at some point last week. However, not one single mainstream news source covered the actual protests. Personally, I would think that civil rights in the UK are far more important than one person’s head injury.

Welfare Reform Ideas

Universalised welfare, bringing all benefits into one. Each pre-existing benefit would instead become a contributor to a single payable sum, with the rent portion of the housing component paid directly to the landlord. Claimants should be able to easily access a statement showing exactly how much they get, itemised by which components (currently separate benefits) contribute to it. The itemisation is for the purposes of ease of reading by the DWP and by the claimant, so that changes in rates can be clearly discerned and investigated by either party. This statement would encompass a weekly, monthly and annual rate, for ease of quantifying how much is received, which would be useful to place on virtually anything that asks for your financial status. Housing benefit would be factored in, but as previously stated, paid to the landlord.

Housing component

The housing component replaces housing benefit and council tax benefit. The amount paid to the landlord would reflect what the rent is on the property. Unlike currently, this rate would not be dictated by the landlord alone, but by agreement between the landlord and the local authority, after having had the property valued by the local authority. While claiming benefits, specifically the housing component, the claimant effectively defers tenancy of the property to the local authority, although must agree with the local authority to act within the terms of the tenancy. This would mean that the claimant, although responsible for their actions on the premises, are not responsible for rent. That responsibility falls to the tenant, nominally the local authority. As a consequence of being the tenant of the property, the local authority has the responsibility to ensure the claimant does not jeopardise the tenancy agreement in any way. Upon entering/leaving the benefits system, new tenancy agreements between claimant/local authority/landlord must be made. The main reason for all this is to ensure benefit claimants are not placed in substandard housing or mistreated by their landlords, to ensure the government has some control over the amount of rent it pays to private landlords, and to ensure that landlords can be secured a guarantee that rent will be paid properly and on time, with accountability being on those responsible for paying it.

Example: Pete lives in a privately rented one bedroom flat. He agreed to the rent rate when he moved in, and has been keeping up with his rent since. Unfortunately, he loses his job, and has to claim benefits. The DWP accepts his claim, and notifies the local authority immediately. The local authority send a housing agent to meet with Pete and assess the property he lives in. If the agent believes the property is not up to standard, this is noted and the landlord is notified at a later stage. During the meeting, the housing agent explains the situation to Pete, and arranges an appointment with Pete and his landlord at the council offices to negotiate rent and tenancy terms, to discuss potential issues noted in the initial assessment, and to draw up a new tenancy agreement, in which the local authority is listed as the tenant, with Pete as an authorised occupant. The landlord signs a separate agreement listing himself as the recipient of the agreed rent, and can thus be paid directly, starting the day Pete lost his job. Several months later, Pete notices damp on the walls inside his home. Instead of calling the landlord, he notifies the local authority, who send an agent round to assess the issue. If the agent is not satisfied, they then notify the landlord and ask for repairs to be made. Emergency repairs would bypass the assessment stage, and if the landlord cannot be contacted, the local authority might carry out the repairs and then bill the landlord afterwards. Soon afterwards, Pete gets a job, and closes his benefit claim. The DWP automatically pay Pete’s landlord a full month’s rent, and notifies the local authority. Another tenancy terms meeting is held, in which tenancy is negotiated and signed back over to Pete directly.

There are several ways in which it can go wrong. For example, Pete’s landlord might not wish to let to the local authority, even though his trusted tenant, Pete, is still the only one occupying his property. This would result in the local authority, on behalf of Pete, having to look for somewhere else for Pete to live. Being directly involved in the negotiations ensures the local authority is aware of the circumstances in which Pete became homeless, and their duty to rehouse him would be affirmed without the need for lengthy application processes. If Pete were to breach his responsibilities as an authorised occupant under the tenancy agreement, the landlord would have to lodge a complaint with the local authority, who would have to investigate, or indeed evict the local authority operating on Pete’s behalf. If the latter happens without the local authority’s agreement, their duty to rehouse Pete remains, although if a local authority investigation finds Pete to be in the wrong, the local authority is able to cease housing support for him, as is currently already the case with such matters.

Employment component

The employment component replaces employment and support allowance, working tax credits and jobseekers allowance. All unemployed recipients of the employment component would undergo a full initial assessment of their capabilities and their incapacities. This would be carried out by a panel of doctors, careers advisors, mentors and job coaches. The point would be to identify which kinds of work would be unsuitable for the claimant, and which kinds of work would be best suited to the claimant. Full medical history would be sought, and an in-depth series of tests would be carried out. The medical history would be assessed by the doctors, supported by the assessment itself. Meanwhile the testing would be to ascertain where the claimant should be heading with regard to work. If the claimant’s medical history shows the claimant to be unable to work, the assessment results in the claimant not being required to show availability or that they are actively seeking work. If the assessment shows the claimant to be best suited for a job they do not yet have the relevant qualifications or experience for, the claimant is sent for relevant training and receives the employment component without the ‘actively seeking work’ requirement, until they are qualified for that work. The suitability rating for various types of work stems from qualifications already gained, health conditions, experience, personality profiling, transferable skills, learning styles and interests, among many other factors.

These assessments would hopefully fix the benefit trap by sourcing up training for claimants to progress into work that they not only can do, but that would enhance their mental and physical wellbeing, by recognising an individual’s aspirations and natural skill set. By propelling people forward into a fulfilling working life, the extra costs associated with full time education, and in-depth assessments would be outweighed by the lowering of costs associated with people having long gaps in employment and few short term jobs. The assessments would also be fair to people with sicknesses and disabilities by identifying with them how much and what they are capable, and indeed incapable, of. People with illnesses would no longer be left forgotten, with no hope of finding work, but crucially they would also not be pushed into looking for work they would suffer from having. Instead of asking if someone’s fit for work, the assessments would ask what work, specifically, someone is fit for. Under this system, the available job pool would be continuously surveyed as well, and the results of surveying factored into the assessment results, meaning that not everyone is going to get trained towards their ideal job if that job is not likely to be obtainable (for example if there are few or no vacancies projected). Instead, the claimant would be handled appropriately towards the next best suited roles.

Workfare would remain, but certainly not in its current form. Instead, the DWP would open a sizable ‘Creative Employment and Skills Centre’, which would essentially just be wild land at first. Jobseekers who choose (they would be asked if they’d like to and given the option to volunteer, rather than being mandated to) to join the Work Program would be assigned roles according to their assessment results, and given work to do on a voluntary basis. Between all of them, the jobseekers would be given first hand experience in an ongoing project to build, maintain, run, organize and administrate a large centre focused solely on work and training. The DWP’s role would merely be to oversee and fund the project, which would be wholly ‘community’ led. Essentially, it would be a kind of camp where people without formal employment can support each other into finding work. Or it might not be a camp, with residential facilities. It might just be a type of school. Depends what the volunteers decide.

The employment component would also incorporate what is currently disability living allowance, although the current criteria for disability living allowance and the way it works would remain unchanged. It would still be independent of employment status and would still be an addition to other components. However, it would no longer be paid four-weekly, but weekly, along with all other components. In short, there would be no separate ‘disability component’, although disability costs would be added to the employment component rather than factored in as part of it.

Age component

The age component would replace the current child benefits, child tax credits, state pension and other age-related state income.

Architect of Society I

I’m going to start a series of posts to illustrate my ideas for a better future. I want people to comment on them. Basically what that means is that I don’t particularly want to stamp my opinion all over the place if my opinion is based in flawed reasoning and thus could be damaging. I’d rather publish what I think and then work with others to better calibrate my position and reach a point where I become reasonable.

Firstly, the housing crisis. Right now, there are a lot of people living in unaffordable accommodation, that the government is having to pay for, and there are also long waiting lists for homeless people to be placed in accommodation. The government is trying to manage the spend on rent by introducing benefit caps and trying to convince people to move. I would do things very differently. I would first introduce a rent cap. By doing this, I would mandate would-be landlords to get their homes valued and, depending on the value of the home, assign them a maximum rate at which they can charge rent on it. This would not take location into account. The cap would be just as high or low in Central London as it is in places further afield. Given how location affects property value anyway, there would be a variance due to location, but it would be solely based on property value, not ‘typical’ rent value of local areas. This measure would drastically reduce the amount of money the government would have to spend in housing benefit, as rent prices would be made more reasonable.

I would then recommend the government invest in social housing projects. As I previously stated in another post, I have a particular preference for energy efficient housing, and would definitely want to aim for something that is as closed a system as possible, with recycling and alternative energies being focal points of the estates, along with substantially improved building materials that reduce costs and improve durability as well as energy efficiency. With lower maintenance costs, these estates would be very likely to reduce the housing spends even more, even if they would cost more to plan and build.

The next thing I would like to focus on is the ongoing welfare situation. Again I’d like to spend a bit more, and expect much bigger economic returns. The current government wants to reduce the welfare budget by reassessing people for sicknesses that they are already well-documented as having, and subsequently shoo them off the welfare system if it is possible to understate their difficulties enough. This is not only costly in the short term, especially as the information required is readily available and unlikely to produce results (if used honestly), but it is also extremely inefficient, especially when counting in the fact that for many it only takes a long and gruelling (and above all, expensive) appeals process to reverse the decision. That, and it’s also inhumane, and has thus far cost tens of thousands of lives and an obscene amount of money.

What I would instead do is assess capability for work. This might sound exactly like what the government is doing, but it is in fact the opposite. I would allow people to remain on the benefits they are on, and my proposed work capability assessment would assess an individual’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of work. While sickness would usually preclude a person from having a typical job, which is a fact seemingly ignored by the current government, it would be possible to help people into employment that is perhaps not so typical, and better suited to them. This would be accomplished through careers advice and training where suitable. While receiving this help, their benefits are paid in full, until such point the claimant finds suitable employment. If indeed their sicknesses certainly preclude any employment whatsoever, then the assessment would determine how long this is expected to be the case, and arrangements made accordingly. Pre-assessments could be made without any direct interaction with the claimant, using evidence from doctors and other professionals.

The idea here is to recognize that the sick are on sickness benefit because they are sick, not because they’re somehow lazy. However, the idea is also to empower sick people and find ways in which they can escape from being forgotten at the bottom of the pack. Instead of shifting people around and trying to kick them into work, it is far better to come up with ways in which they can work without being stripped of dignity, and in full recognition of the challenges they face from sickness. Essentially changing the ethic from ‘you can work, therefore you can’t claim benefits’ to ‘you’re very ill, but not worthless. We have researched the job market, and wonder have you ever thought about doing <this job>? The employer has assured us that you won’t have to go to their premises to do the job, and we have allocated you an advocate who can make sure you’re treated fairly and not expected to do anything that you cannot. We feel that this career path will work for you, but you do have every right to say no, and your benefits will not be affected’

Job seekers, a different group, are not sick, but still face problems finding work. I feel that they too could benefit from a full assessment of strengths and weaknesses, as well as decentrelevant, and worthwhile training. The reason I emphasise those words is because I am aware that training has been available in the past. CV skills, first aid, and others. Most of which do not result in any meaningful qualification, leaving the jobseeker no more attractive to employers as before. Why not pay for jobseekers to attend universities and colleges and educate themselves towards careers that they actually want and can easily transfer between jobs in? In the short term, this would be very costly, but I’m not so sure. A typical jobseeker costs around £5,000 per annum, and that’s without any housing benefits or other costs. Sending them to full time education with their benefits would get them into work on a far more permanent basis and far sooner than the current system. I’m pretty sure the qualifications and subsequent jobs will pay for themselves after a couple of years. Not only would the government save that benefit money, but the newly employed claimant pays tax. Again, they’d be assessed as to what they can/can’t do, where their strengths and weaknesses are, and proper advice given to ensure a well-matched and rewarding career is paid for, rather than a course the claimant would not want to do, and drop out of rather quickly.

I mention potential jobs for everyone, but I have yet to make any mention of where these jobs will come from. For a start, there’s all the social housing being built, but I have other ideas. What I would do to create more jobs is make use of the Eurozone. UK citizens looking for work in the UK tend to only get employed in the UK. Yet we have the freedom to live and work anywhere in the EU. I would recommend programs be set up where someone could live and work in another EU country if the work is available there, without officially having to leave the UK. Essentially remaining a UK resident, paying tax to the UK, having gained employment in the UK, and having a home in the UK, but having an employment location elsewhere. There would be agreements between the governments ensuring that paid-for housing would be available in the area near the place of employment, so people would only have to pay rent for their UK home, not their EU home. This type of housing would be paid for by the whole EU, not just the UK. However, it needs to be stressed that nobody would be required to take a job in another country, especially if they’re sick.

Final thought for tonight: If the government pulls its finger out, it might be able to tweak the tax and enforcement system and recover the hundreds of billions of pounds dodged by big international corporations. Of course, it’s legal for the corporations to do that, thanks to loopholes, but it shouldn’t be. Why has the law not changed to make it impossible?