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Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Often, what prods me to get tetchy and social-justicey on the internet and bash out a minor socialist tirade has a lot to do with the free-loader problem.

Someone else writes about the problem of other people “expecting everything to be handed to them”, and how this is a major societal catastrophe which their preferred political system is capable of handling, while your preferred political system would give free reign to these entitled monsters and then calamity would somehow ensue.

My objection tends to be to the mischaracterisation: it’s not only dehumanising to brand a class of people as moochers in this way, it’s an incorrect assessment of how entitlement is actually distributed. It’s not actually true that capitalism is busy rewarding the hard work of those noble industrialists who contribute the most to society, despite the best efforts of entitled poor people to undermine the whole enterprise with their unreasonable demands for free stuff to just be given to them. This is an untrue narrative that serves to further entrench class divides and add to the troubles of those already having the hardest time.

Reading one particular justification of class inequality the other day, though, I had another thought: What’s so wrong with wanting stuff handed to you?

I mean, as the foibles of humanity go, we’re capable of vastly worse, and this one seems to be either justified or largely self-regulating.

If you demand the handing-over of unnecessary luxuries which you haven’t earned and people don’t think you deserve, then what you’ll actually receive is probably disappointment and frustration.

And if what you expect to have handed to you isn’t a luxury but part of the bare minimum requirements to allow you a tolerable existence, then maybe these are things we should just be handing to people regardless of how obnoxiously we think they’re asking for it?

So why is it worth the rest of us making such a fuss over it? If someone’s expecting too much to be handed to them which they don’t deserve, they’re damning themselves. If they’re expecting to be handed things people should feel entitled to, are you going to be the one to look at them holding their hands out and say “NOPE, sorry, you go hungry and sleep outside tonight because you were too much of a dick when you asked for food and shelter”?

It’s relatable, I admit, the way this freeloading problem is something people react to very viscerally and emotionally. But I’m not persuaded that a rational assessment would actually identify this as a major problem deserving of such a harsh crackdown. It might make you angry, and that’s understandable, but that doesn’t make you right, or give you right to indulge those angry instincts without questioning whether that helps anything. The fact that even mild entitlement earns such vicious castigation is a quirk of human psychology, not a fact about how objectively terrible people are.

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I mean, the science is pretty clearly in, so we know the social and economic benefits of providing everyone with a basic income would be vast. Apparently another bonus is that it makes people “more entrepreneurial“, whatever that means and whatever’s so great about it. Sounds less exciting than escaping the constant anxiety of being homeless and starving if the intrinsically fragile capitalist economy has a bit of a bad day and decides to fuck you up, but sure.

But another thing that’s actually interesting about it, is that a basic income makes sense of a bunch of other policies many economists have recommended, but which often make bleeding-heart lefty types like me bristle.

F’rinstance: charging people a flat fee to see their GP or attend A&E. All the articles I’m finding about it seem to be at least a year old, but I’m sure this cropped up again somewhere just recently.

Basic economics tells us that an increase in something’s price will reduce the volume of its consumption; an increase from free, to a nominal fee of £10 a visit, would ease the burden faced by the NHS and reduce the volume of people using its services, but only those people whose problems are worth less than a tenner would be foregoing any medical attention. Care is still available to anyone who’d really benefit from it, but those who don’t really need it won’t go along anyway on the grounds that “might as well, it’s all free”.

The point of having money, after all, is to allow people to express preferences in a meaningful, concrete way. People who wouldn’t “prefer” to see a doctor than whatever else that small nominal fee could provide – coffee with a friend in Starbucks, say – probably aren’t going to die or deteriorate abruptly based on that decision, since it can’t be bothering them that much.

The problem, as things currently stand, is that the people who’d end up “preferring” to do something else with their nominal fee wouldn’t be choosing between a hospital visit and some overpriced caffeine; they’d be choosing between a hospital visit and the gas bill for keeping their home warm. Or the food they were planning to buy for their children this week. Or the bus fare to get to the Jobcentre so the bastards don’t fucking sanction them again.

Some people are so rich they can have basically all the things they want, and the use of money as a way to express preference becomes meaningless on this scale, while some people are so screwed over by the system already that they don’t get to make choices between preferences in a way that’s remotely fair. Even if you try and means-test it, it’s another hurdle requiring poor people to prove their neediness once again before granting them access to basic medical care.

If only there was some way to make sure people didn’t face that kind of harsh, brutal, unjust, life-or-death dichotomy, and were free to make genuinely economically rational choices about how to allocate the resources available to them.

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The response to the recent fashion for “poverty porn” says a lot about the strange ideas many of us seem to have, regarding how we’d deal with real poverty if we were ever in serious financial trouble.

We seem to think that, if times were tight, we’d be able to tighten our belts for a while, live sensible and sparsely, and ride it out. It’d just take a bit of budgeting and deliberate frugality, which it feels we’d be able to handle if we had to, if we were really tested. We’d knuckle down, we’d scrimp, we’d save. We wouldn’t waste our time and valuable resources on fripperies like a “flatscreen TV” – a fancy gadget modern enough to bewilder many tabloid journalists with its exoticism, but known to the rest of us as “a TV” and which can retail new for like £70 nowadays. But even that seems needlessly lavish, if you’re so poor that it’s a matter of survival. We’d cut back on anything so frivolous as entertainment then, and only spend money on what we truly needed.

We may not all be as deluded on this score as Iain Duncan Smith, but it’s still a prevalent attitude.

After all, we all have money problems to some degree or another. Which means it’s all too easy to sorta kinda picture ourselves in that kind of situation, and imagine how motivated we’d be to find some way out of it. The looming dread of poverty would surely be a powerful motivator that we – not being feckless scroungers and layabouts – would be inspired to leap into action, and work hard and diligently, and make our own independent way in the world. Naturally we’d respond that way, just as naturally as the world would inevitably reward our hard work by making sure we regained our financial security if we just kept at it for long enough.

Good lord it’s such obvious bollocks though. I mean, if you pay any attention to the amount of money people with bills to pay throw away on stuff that’s not strictly necessary but provides them with some kind of happiness or comfort, or if you learn anything about the psychological effects of being in constantly dire financial straits, or if you’ve spent any time actually living in that kind of world, not just on a two-week sight-seeing trip there with a paid-off house and a career in politics and/or media to come home to at the end of it all.

I’ve never lived in the kind of world where the demands and threats of destitution are constantly grinding you down, and anyone in an even slightly higher income bracket or social class can be safely assumed to be looking down on you and holding you at least partly responsible for your predicaments, and Channel 4 are making documentaries to show millions of people what scum you are, and where a nation will turn against you simply for wanting to enjoy an easy, accessible, low-cost way to distract yourself from worrying if the gas is going to be cut off this week and watch some moving picture of a world that doesn’t suck for a while. And I feel fortunate that I haven’t. The idea that the financial situation of the least well-off benefits claimants in this country is enviable is completely alien to me.

How shit does someone’s life have to be before you stop resenting them getting any help from anyone? Christ, let people have their flatscreen TVs. What the hell do you want from them?

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Utah has cut homelessness by 74% in eight years. The radical solution nobody else had thought of turns out to be: let people without homes live in the homes that nobody else is living in. Just let them go in and live there, in the homes. Then they stop being homeless.

Meanwhile in Hawaii, one elected Democrat opted for a stint of ostentatiously destroying homeless people’s property and harassing them while they slept. Normally you’d have your ass sued for something like that. Y’know, if the victims were real people.

Hawaii has the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Hawaii has not cuts its homelessness problem by 74% in eight years.

Utah’s given us some pretty great data on how to cost-effectively address this problem. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where actually fixing the problem is not everyone’s priority. It’s what everyone says they want, but in practice it often comes below “seeming to fix the problem” or “performing the kinds of actions that will reduce the chance of political opponents being able to hurl reputation-damaging epithets like ‘soft on crime’ at me”.

For instance: Tom Brower, of the above-mentioned sledge-hammer rampage, has demonstrated fuck-all interest in helping the people he represents. (Yes, that even includes the ones with nowhere to live, whether or not they voted for him or are capable of donating to his campaign. If you’re arrogant enough to want to hold political office, you don’t get to choose which people in your district are real people and which can be safely disregarded as trash.)

The only purpose this campaign of harassment served was an attempted PR boost. He obviously doesn’t take such a hands-on approach to the running of his district in all regards. He makes the higher-level decisions and delegates everyday things like garbage collection to professionals in that area. This was a cynical, attention-grabbing, vote-wangling, photo-op of a ploy. It’s cruel and hateful, and shows him to be the kind of bell-end who thinks that such dehumanisation will have mass appeal among his potential voters. His style of political strategising leads him to assume that, when folk see him kicking the least fortunate of his own constituents while they’re down, the majority will be inclined to give him even more power to run things and kick the scum even harder next time.

Tragically, he was right enough about this kind of stuff to have got voted into office at least once.

Bullying homeless people improves nothing for anybody, and it’s hard to imagine how even an asshole like Tom Brower could be dishonest enough with himself to believe that it would. But show me another approach which has reduced homelessness by 74% in eight years, and in which most of the homeless people in question are still alive at the end of it. If you can’t, let’s start giving people homes.

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A question often asked of libertarians – of people who think that society can and should organise itself without centralised government, or at least with much less of it than is commonly found in many Western societies – is this: “In a world without a government to collect taxes and provide public services, who will build the roads?”

Roads, after all, are an obvious example of something which can produce positive results which far outweigh the cost of producing them (otherwise we wouldn’t keep building them). But, unless every road is a toll road, their benefits can’t be hoarded by the people who put in the initial expense. No private actor in the free market would bother providing useful public services like building roads, the argument goes, if they’re not going to make a profit off of it themselves – even if building the road would provide a benefit to everyone.

In some ways, it’s a symbolic and rhetorical question, used to assert the need for some form of government in order to provide certain necessities of modern society. But it’s often posed seriously as well, and numerous responses have been offered, by more savvy political commentators than I, ranging from “nobody knows, but it’s worth finding out because we’d probably find a better solution than the current one”, to “who needs roads anyway?”

Whatever the current state of the political theory, we’re yet to enact any solution to this problem, besides establishing a government to pay for projects like road-building, and fund it by taking some of everyone’s money by force, whether those people want to pay for a road or not. In most mainstream discourse, the idea that there actually might be a better solution – or an alternative, functional solution at all – doesn’t come up a whole lot. People tend to revert to whichever standard position they’re most familiar with (libertarian/statist) and defend that against the other, without considering whether the scope of reality might be any broader than this one binary issue.

A similar dynamic plays out in discussions of any sort of an unconditional basic income. If everyone in your society were being provided with sufficient resources to get by, to live a decent life with basic amenities, regardless of their employment status, then who would do all the unpleasant jobs that we need people to do? Who would do the unpleasant jobs in sanitation, the boring jobs like directing traffic, the dangerous jobs like fighting fires – or, indeed, the necessary but perhaps unfulfilling or rather dull jobs like building roads?

I’m still slowly building up a worldview which can encapsulate some sort of satisfactory answer. But in the meantime, I want to highlight something hiding in the question.

Let’s assume that you oppose the idea of an unconditional basic income – of a comfortable minimum standard of living being provided to everyone, regardless of history or circumstances – on the grounds that people don’t deserve what they haven’t earned, and will be unmotivated to provided any useful work or contribution to society if all their basic needs are taken care of.

Implicit in that position is the following belief:

In order to keep society running smoothly, we must routinely threaten people with destitution, starvation, and homelessness, if they refuse to do what we need them to do for the greater good. These tasks are so vital to our way of life, that the best way to achieve them involves making people’s ability to feed their family, heat their homes, and live somewhere with a roof over their heads, entirely conditional on whether they’re willing to do them. I cannot conceive of a more practical or desirable way to motivate people to do the work necessary for modern life than to impose this threat on every living person by default.

Without hashing out the arguments and counter-arguments of whether this is a convincing argument or not, let’s at least be clear that this is absolutely the claim you are making, if you don’t think that an unconditional basic income is practical, or that there’s any way roads would ever get built if there wasn’t a government in charge to make it happen. At least own your position in explicit terms.

Classroom discussion questions

1. So, wait, who actually builds the roads now?

2. They must know something about how you build roads, right? Is there any other way we could structure society so that they could keep doing that?

3. No? The way we happen to do it exactly here and now is the only way it’s possible to imagine it ever being done? Okay, fair enough.

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People in this country are increasingly unable to adequately feed themselves and their families. Whether due to the inhumane system of benefits sanctions or some other reason, hundreds of thousands more people are relying on charitable services in order not to starve to death, in the UK, in 2014.

By any reasonable metric, more people are facing more appalling hardships due to broadening income inequality. But at least one elected representative thinks it’s all nonsense. He’s seen through the agenda being pushed by those other politicians who wear different coloured hats than him. He’s observed proof positive that, in his area of the country at least, the notion that anyone’s going hungry is merely an illusion:

People aren’t in poverty in terms of going without food. You try booking a restaurant in Crawley on a Friday or Saturday night. You can’t do it.

Well, there you have it. See, poor people? If you’ve been referred to a food bank due to some imaginary “crisis” with your so-called “cost of living”, been given a few tins of beans to help stave off malnourishment, then brought them back because you can’t afford to heat them, don’t despair – the restaurant industry in Crawley is booming. Why not just go out for a nice meal? Genius.

…Except on Friday or Saturday nights, I guess, because apparently you can’t do that on those days. Which somehow still proves his point about how everyone’s got enough food? Mind you, this is from the same brilliant mind responsible for this logical nail-bomb immediately before:

Some people are finding it hard but everyone’s finding it hard.

How do I conjunction?

Sentence construction aside, this kind of pathological obliviousness fascinates me. I stare at it and try to fathom the underlying worldview and assumptions which could prop up such an insane missing of the point, my brow furrowing in ever-deepening bafflement at how every notion of logic or sense could be so deftly avoided, until I inevitably make this face:

and need to go and sit down with an ice-pack pressed against my head for a bit.

Calling it a rationalisation or a way to resolve cognitive dissonance doesn’t satisfactorily get to the root of the faulty thought processes here. And it seems important to try getting to their root, because otherwise the whole thing’s too impossibly frustrating to even know how to engage with. But it really feels as if, in order to have quite this little of a clue, you’d have to be actively trying really hard to close your mind to reality.

A significant swathe of conservative thought is ideologically resistant to the idea that people in the same part of the world as you, in comparable circumstances to your own – not in some poverty-stricken, far-flung part of Africa, which might as well be somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse – can be suffering more than they deserve. Maybe if the government directly caused it, it can be believed – but anyone who the market’s decided shouldn’t be in possession of a life-sustaining supply of nourishment must have failed in some inherent, moral way. So when faced with hordes of people for whom this is palpably not the case, the only available response is to rationalise them out of existence.

Nobody’s really going hungry; the restaurants round here are packed.

Or, they’re all feckless scroungers who could be getting by just fine if they got off their lazy arses and worked.

But actual, genuine hardship and suffering and injustice, faced by hundreds of thousands of people, who don’t deserve it? Who’ve just been dealt a shitty hand by the same system which I’m a part of and which has always treated me pretty nicely thank you very much? Oh no, that can’t possibly be how the world works. If that were true, I might have to admit that luck played some sort of role in my own success, or that all those socialist do-gooders who go round saying we should be nice to each other and care for the less fortunate might have a point.

(h/t Political Scrapbook)

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Pointing out the inhumanity, cruelty, viciousness, and not-remotely-disguised contempt for dehumanised individuals which drives modern Tory welfare policy is always something I can get behind. But the graphic at the top of this post is entirely the wrong way to think about all of this.

It’s not a “handout”
It’s not “welfare”
It’s not “something for nothing”
It’s money from the government from a fund you have paid into, for when times are hard.
And it belongs to you.

The Irritable Duncan Syndromes and the Kate Trollkinses of the world are fixated on whether people (at least, people who start with very little) think they “deserve” anything they didn’t “earn” themselves. Within a certain unbalanced, unfair, and totally rigged framework for what constitutes “earnings”, of course. If you’re in possession of a single penny you didn’t come by through some means arbitrarily deemed acceptable to our capitalist ideals (run a bank that loses everyone else’s money: good; inheritance: good; £56.80 a week from the state to stop you starving or freezing to death and to cover the bus fare to your full-time unpaid workfare placement: fuck off, scrounger) then they’re on the attack, letting you know exactly what society thinks of you.

Obviously people deserve better than this. But arguing that people deserve to be paid back by the welfare state, because it’s something they’ve contributed to before, plays directly into the right-wingers’ game.

They point at the likes of White Dee, screech about outrageous entitlement, and deny that she deserves any of the government-provided assistance she’s getting. If your response involves pointing at the things she might have done in the past to make her worthy of her benefits – National Insurance contributions or whatever – you’re giving too much ground to the conservatives’ premise, and simply lowering the bar for how much people have to prove themselves to you.

It’s a start, don’t get me wrong. It takes compassion and a sense of perspective to lower that bar as far as I’ve been seeing a lot on the left recently, and there’s a lot of important support for people who’ve been deemed insufficiently “deserving” by many. But you can take it even further by not playing their game at all.

I don’t think White Dee deserves the financial help to live a decent, bearable life just because she’s paid some taxes in the past, or in some way “given back” to the society she’s now counting on for support.

I think she deserves that help because she’s a human being and this is the twenty-first century, for Christ’s sake.

If you want to carry on trying to filter the deserving from the undeserving poor, making your list of who really needs help and checking it twice to make sure nobody’s snuck on there looking for a free ride, you need to know that, at the moment, your way of doing things is making cancer patients go for months without a penny due to a “backlog crisis” in assessments; stopping people’s benefits for having a heart attack during a work capability assessment; oh, and costing hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of the official government policy of throwing people out of their homes if they’re taking up slightly more space than they could conceivably be crammed into.

If, alternatively, you wanted to try being humane and generous and giving everybody something resembling a fair chance at making a decent life for themselves, then the side effects would include vastly reducing the levels of indignity and suffering inflicted on the poor by the state. And on the negative side, well, some people would get enough money that they wouldn’t have to starve to death or worry about ending up homeless, even if they didn’t work for it.

Wait, I mean – some poor people will get that. That’s the only way it’s actually news.

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