Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Future of Work: SSI and the Citizen's Wage

The Grim Future Can Be Brightly Lit!
In the British comic-book satire Judge Dredd in the post-apocalyptic Mega City One the public schools train people for unemployment. They get to learn how to spend their days with a hobby or something so they aren't out committing crimes. If you saw the recent movie, you know their public schools are failing even worse than ours are:
What if that future was closer than we think?

Social Security Supplemental Income
The NPR Radio Show This American Life recently aired Trends With Benefits about the massive rise in recipients of government aid in the form of SSI: Social Security Supplemental Income. The radio show takes us to Hale County Alabama where a stunning 1/4th of the population doesn't work: they're on government disability. The numbers are staggering: the amount of people on SSI has doubled in the past 15 years. These people (something like 14 million of them) are not counted on unemployment. There is no way to "get off" SSI--it's for people who are too disabled to work. It's for life. You get about 1k a month: you will die poor.

The story that intrepid reporter Chana Joffe-Walt tells is even more breathtaking: she asks a recipient of SSI what job, if she could have any job in the world that she wants, would she want. The woman didn't know--but then she came up with something: she'd be the lady who sits in the DMV office and reads out the rules on who gets SSI and who doesn't.

The reporter assumes that's because the woman thinks she'd be good at catching the frauds--but no--that's not it. It's because that's the only job she has ever encountered that you can do sitting down. Think about that.

The doctor in this town asks people coming into his office looking for claims what their level of education is. Very few have completed high school. No one has completed college. When he assess a claim for SSI he asks himself: Is there any job available that this person can do on their feet all day that doesn't involve heavy lifting? The answer, for the uneducated, is always no.

If you want to listen to some astonishing radio, click the link and have a listen. If you think NPR is a tool of the liberal left and has a driving hidden agenda you should definitely go click the link and have a listen: you are exactly the guy who should hear this (and you're not wrong--but man, you should hear it).

The Awful Truth About SSI
Here The (indomitable) Last Psychiatrist writes about his(?) SSI patients. His look is, as is his wont, cynical and penetrating. He dissects it and concludes it is an awful system and is set up specifically to be awful because you demanded it.
What you should be asking is why, if society has decided to give the poor a stipend of $600/month, does it do this through the medical establishment and not as a traditional social policy? And the answer is very simple: 
  1. you, America, would go bananas if poor people got money for nothing, you can barely stand it when they get it for a disability;
  1. if you offload a social problem to medicine, if you medicalize a social problem, then you've bought yourself a generation or two to come up with a new plan or invade someone.
Do you want riots in the streets? How much does it cost to prevent LA (your choice) from catching fire? Answer: $600/month/person, plus Medicaid.   Medicalizing social problems has the additional benefit of rendering society not responsible for those social ills. If it's a disease, it's nobody's fault. Yay empiricism.
You should read the whole article. If you think that TLP (not that you've heard of him) is a raving tool of the patriarchy and has a crypt-fascist agenda even as he decries the morality of the state you should definitely go read that link. And then you should keep on reading. It'll be good for you.

The Real Problems
These pieces of reportage are parallel lines. To the psychiatrist who proscribes Xanax on SSI to patients lest they kill him things look one way. To the reporter doing the math in Alabama things look a different way. The lines converge here: There are not enough jobs for everyone to be employed and for the kinds of jobs available a huge majority of people may neither be able to do them (be on their feet all day as they age) and/or they may not pay enough to live on.

This has the effect of ensuring that not only are there a lot of college educated kids without jobs--but the people without college educations do even worse. They move further "down the ladder."

Megan McArdle addresses this in her recent article: When B.A. Stands for Barista.
Obviously, if Beaudry et al right, this is ferociously depressing news. It suggests that we're pushing more and more people into (more and more expensive) college programs, even as the number of jobs in which they can use those skills has declined. A growing number of students may be in a credentialling arms race to gain access to routine service jobs. Or maybe the productivity of our nation's wait staff is spiking as more skilled workers flood into these jobs.
This trend might reverse itself--but it may get worse too. Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 writes that as society continues to separate from the more successful (for a variety of reasons that he goes into) to the less successful there may be a need for a solution that does not let the otherwise unemployable masses at the bottom starve. Perhaps a kind of stipend paid for by taxes--a "wage" just for being a citizen.

The Solution: A Citizen's Wage?
Various solutions look something like this: either everyone gets a wage or everyone who works gets extra income (or both)--and a lot of it too. As everyone pays more in taxes--but you get the wage / extra-income back you don't come out as far behind as it seems like if you were in the middle brackets. This also takes the place of most other welfare programs.

As it is "flat" (everyone gets it) and identical (everyone gets the same amount) it is far easier to administrate than our current programs that it replaces.

Of course, if you believe it'll kill all desire to work, I'm not going to argue with you--maybe it would (I personally believe some--perhaps a lot--of people would continue to work--but certainly there would be some people who take their 20k/year and kick back ... forever).

Would It Work?
I have no earthly idea. The basic math seems pretty daunting but not impossible. Certainly it would re-order our economy overnight in unpredictable ways. It would definitely make masses of people dependent on the government--but a lot of those people may be so dependent now anyway.

I think the question is not "would it work" but rather "what is it that we are trying to accomplish." The American experiment doesn't guarantee safety or a safety net of any sort. There is no promise of employment or the like. If we are doing this we are doing it for one of two reasons:

  1. Because we are "good people" and this does good in an effective way that outweighs the harm and compensates for the risk --or--
  2. Because there is a reckoning coming and if we don't fix our society in some way it will burn.
Let's not discount the possibility that the reckoning that's coming is that taxes and entitlements are too high and that the burning will be like Cypress. Let's not forget about that.

I don't know the answer and I don't have too much of an opinion save this: if, indeed, we are looking at a future where, because of structure elements in the economy we can expect a large number of people to be unemployed and neigh unemployable we will have to do something--even if it's just build walled communes for us ... until we lose our jobs.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe the first step would be to have more realistic data on unemployment. This article looks at the problems with the numbers.