Ben Simmons: Would you quit your job for £13,000 a year?


Campaigner Ben Simmons gives his take on the UK Government's new cap on benefits, which started this week

UNEMPLOYMENT sucks, trust me. I recently changed careers and spent eight months looking for work. 

It was the worst time of my life and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone – except most of my former colleagues and our Tory government. 

My time stuck in the flat was equal parts boring and stressful, with a generous helping of shame and despair on the side. As a result of this experience I find it appallingly naïve that anyone can assert that being unemployed is somehow attractive or preferable to working.

Read more – "The working class are getting their voices back." Daniel Blake star hits out as new benefits cap begins

If it was, why would there be such a negative impact on health? So it is not without considerable rage that I read about the recent capping of benefits to £20,000 for a couple, and all the implicit assumptions that it makes about contemporary life.

For the sake of simplicity let’s confine this discussion to the benefit rates for people outside London.

Firstly, by moving the benefit cap down from £26,000 to £20,000 for two people you are saying that most work is so unpleasant and unsatisfactory that people want to quit their jobs for £13,000 a year.

Why it is that modern work is so rubbish that it is worse than unemployment is worth several articles on its own, but you can probably capture most of it by looking at the way that work has been broken down by deskilling, and the way that this has depressed wages. 

Breaking down something artisanal and skilled into something that can be done by several unskilled and replaceable workers for a combined lower salary makes work unsatisfying and reduces the bargaining power of the workforce, with the result that they earn minimum wage. 

Read more – Explainer: How the UK Government’s new benefit cap will affect you

All the minimum wage says is that if your employer could they would pay you less, and from that you can infer that they currently believe you are overpaid. How’s your job satisfaction now? 

Skilled work is broken down to unskilled work, which is then the first to be outsourced, such as call centres or to manufacturing in China and India. Soon, advances in robotics and computing will make white collar work redundant, too, through automation, so that will mean more people unemployed and depress wages further.

There are currently 1,656,000 unemployed people and 749,000 vacancies nationwide anyway, and shoeing the unemployed isn’t going to change that. And as far as meritocracy goes, poverty massively diminishes academic attainment, so families affected by unemployment are more likely to be raising children whose only option is minimum wage insecure work without minimum hours. 

Don’t worry, though, we can always ogle them on Benefits Street. Work is only created where there is a need in the market, and the unemployed have no control over that. 

Lowering the income of those in high unemployment areas will only make business more precarious for local employers and will do nothing to encourage hiring more staff. This is one of the reasons that a basic income would actually benefit the economy, by creating better economic conditions in deprived areas.

All in all, reducing the benefit cap will do nothing but shift the costs to the health service, increase long-term unemployment, and destabilise already precarious communities.

Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland believes that rather than stripping benefits away, protecting them is in fact the best way to make work available to the unemployed, as by the government’s own figures withdrawing benefits as you earn is equivalent to a 96 per cent income tax rate.

So we arrive where we are now. Minimum wage work is unsatisfying, and less than half of the unemployed could find work anyway. That the minimum wage is 'minimum' at all is an admission that it is the bare essential to live on if you are working full time, giving you £13,000 per person. 

An actual living wage would be £15,397. So the answer is apparently to force the unemployed into poverty to make the minimum wage attractive, even though work is not available and being unemployed is an awful experience. 

The reduced rate for couples also has the added benefit of increasing demand for single tenant properties, driving up rents and preventing families living together

All in all, reducing the benefit cap will do nothing but shift the costs to the health service, increase long-term unemployment, and destabilise already precarious communities, all simply to indulge the power fantasies of a right wing that knows nothing about the abuse inflicted by this terrible policy.

Picture courtesy of David Goehring

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