We who are doing OK have built our society on the wrong principles and values.
We have begun with the assumption that everyone must work and try to get ahead. Not simply live well, but deliberately live better, even if at the expense of others. Particular education institutions would and should help us do this. If there are some who have difficulty learning those things which are meant to equip us, well, that’s too bad. We must expect that someone will have to do the more menial work, and it might as well be those who don’t live up to our expectations. We don’t want to do that work, so it works out well for the others to do it.
If it happens that there are not jobs available matching their capabilities, too bad. For them, there is charity, if we feel like it. Keep in mind that “they” may include those with mental illness or incapacity, or physical illness or disability.
But some may not be doing anything at all because they are simply lazy, or do not feel the wages are worth the effort, or the risk during COVID. These are those whom some consider “the undeserving poor,” about whom Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion’s character Alfred P. Doolittle is so knowledgeable:
I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agin [against] middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: ‘You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it.’ But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I’m playing straight with you. I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that’s the truth.
There are different ways to understand the distinction: that some people deserve being poor because of “immoral” actions such as laziness or drunkenness or other addiction, or marriage or family failure, or theft or other crime; while some are poor through no fault of their own. All these suffer even more during COVID. Their plights are empbazoned, like bright streaks of molten lava flowing through the gaps in our society. No one deserves to be sick or starving or too cold or hot for healthy living. No one deserves to be isolated through lack of means to make it in this world. And yet, this is the world we have constructed.
Some people inherit their advantages – wealth of the family of origin, or wealth by marriage; opportunities to get into the schools that are right – right for a good education, right just because of their reputation, right because they introduce you to people of influence. For those who don’t get those benefits, well, it’s just too bad. Some may actually believe that it was entirely due to their own hard work that they were able to get the good education at the right school and so on, and they may well be right. But the route there was facilitated by someone else, known personally or not, who opened a door through a scholarship, or a particular admissions program. There must be more such programs fitted to the needs of people who don’t make it the “regular” way. If no one thought of your particular limitation, well, there’s charity – maybe. You will always still have to “qualify” somehow.
What’s wrong with this?
For one thing, you could be poor – inadequately provided to survive cold and heat, rain and snow, to have a place of your own where you can keep your things to yourself. Your abilities and potential to contribute to society may be squandered because the world is not open to what you can do in the way you can do it. The world is denied your talent and contributions. If you manage to have a family, you may be keeping them down, inadequately fed, etc. One person’s suffering should not, as a matter of ethics, cause another’s, especially not a child’s.
We have learned through experiments with some forms of guaranteed income, especially during the current pandemic, that having enough money initially may make it possible to get off the treadmill (source: interview with one such person). If you don’t have to work three part-time jobs, requiring time to get to and from them, and somehow having time to stop in to the pharmacist to pick up medications (if you can afford them) and basic necessities, and to have a bit of time for your partner and kids, and perhaps other family, and maybe even yourself; if you can work just two jobs and use the newly available time to do these things and do some planning about how to improve your lot by getting more education or searching for better employment, and getting enough healthy air, well then that basic income has helped beyond measure. Once you have discovered that you can now improve your circumstances, your self-esteem rises, your confidence. As you better your own circumstances you may better others’ as well, either your family, or the vendors from whom you purchase, and (if you become a tax payer) the public in general – schools, hospitals, first responders, and so forth. You might even have time and security to enter public realm, get involved in a group to improve your neighbourhood or some charity, or a group which provides emotional support for you and for others. That is a great deal of value, indeed, that basic income.
Too, if you have enough breathing room to evaluate your situation and potential this way, and, for example, identify any disability or other barrier (such as racial or sexual bias) which gets in your way, perhaps you can bring it to the attention of someone who can arrange circumstances for you to achieve in your own way, be valued for your achievement, and maybe even better your circumstances even if your disability, or the bias, continues. Someone else will also benefit from that — whoever was able to change things for you may realize that those changes may make things more open for others. So they benefit, as do yet others who are in the same situations. Whoever opens up these opportunities for you also benefits by learning something new. They perceive that you are not a “deserving poor” but are as willing as anyone to carry yourself through life. Perhaps they will be curious about other limitations which might be accommodated to everyone’s benefit. You see how this can spread.
If government is responsive to information about such changes, perhaps it can regularize not only the basic income for yourself and others like you, but establish accommodations as a normative policy. You will be “normal” in the sense that you can successfully appraise your situation and plan for and work toward improvements in your circumstances.
We in Canada have done a good job providing retirement income for current seniors, a sort of basic income. But we can see that our economy and social values have not been built for the newer generations whose employment is not reliable, nor paying enough to enable saving for retirement. Something new must be done for that future, for all the same reasons. The benefits become circular: people who can, partly because of basic income, keep themselves healthy in terms of shelter, protection against heat and cold, nutrition and health, will call less upon emergency medicine, and perhaps less upon services for mental difficulties. The rising costs of one service will decrease the costs of others. But the rising costs of one provide the additional benefits noted above.
The rest of us must leave room in society for these things to happen. Our government must seek opportunities to make it possible for people to improve their own lots. We must let go of our sense of charity for whoever isn’t making it, and change systemically to value making it possible for anyone and everyone to make it if they wish. We must learn to value other people’s achievements, without comparison to our own. We need not think of some as more deserving or less, or more valid than not, or more important than others, or less famous and prestigious than others. These are not useful values; they don’t improve life nor help it flourish; they distort our real worth and others’. They create envy and hurt, and stifle the achievements of others.
The current pandemic has highlighted all the suffering caused by the way we have built our society. It’s time to learn the lessons of COVID, to note all the ills of the current structure magnified by the disease, and re-create our society and our values so that these ills are no longer normal parts of the system.
I know that we can do this, because I have been listening in on the discussions among “experts”, academicians, business types, government officials, and brilliant thinkers, in conversation with the “normal” people who are living in these ills. We can perceive the problems; we can perceive the causes; therefore we can perceive the solutions. We can go beyond simply not doing something wrong (hating Blacks) and figure out what to do instead (change our attitude intentionally and carefully). There are no problems or circumstances, aside from entrenched power, perhaps, which can stop these improvements.
But we must be careful that improving the lot of some, does not unnecessarily threaten the needs of others. A casual example, not an advocacy for it: should we decide to diminish the use of the automobile so as to reduce air pollution and consumption of non-renewable resources to build roads and power the vehicles, we must be sure to work together with those whose employment has been based upon the car, directly or indirectly, to shift to another satisfactory employment that honours their current skills and abilities and income and social standing, even while perhaps requiring additional change from them. Threatening one person for the sake of another, is not a respectable or ethical tactic. Talking together (see previous blog https://wp.me/pa7841-42) is required, and lots of it. There must be informed consent to these changes, but there must be urgency lest inertia drag us back into the problems. We must be able to illuminate the benefit for everyone in their own lives, not in the abstract, to make this work. So, more conversation, and much change, together.