Part V - A Deeper Look at GLI: What is it we value about work?

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This web feature is Part V in a series looking at the assumptions we have about guaranteed livable income. The first feature deconstructed the question of whether people would work if they had income security. Part II examined the issue of whether people have a right to income security, regardless of activity. Part III considered the availability of jobs in Canada, and whether it is reasonable to assume that every Canadian could have a job that would meet their needs. Part IV questioned whether policy makers and bureaucrats can truly and fairly judge the ability of others to engage in paid employment.

MoneyDuring the debate over extending employment insurance benefits to more unemployed Canadians earlier this year, Diane Finley, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, said “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it.” The minister is not alone in feeling this way; many Canadians believe that it is not appropriate for us to pay people for doing nothing. This is one of the principle obstacles to obtaining support for Guaranteed Livable Income in Canada.

In a previous web feature, I addressed the reality that people aren’t actually “doing nothing” when they’re not participating in paid work. There are many kinds of activities that take place outside of the paid labour force, whether it’s unpaid work, caring labour, political, religious, or cultural activities, civic engagement, or leisure. Some of these activities are necessary in order for us to carry out paid work.

So it is a red herring to argue that giving money to the unemployed allows them to do nothing. However, this is a persistent notion in our society, tightly bound up with cultural and religious notions of value, responsibility, and work ethic.

In this week’s web feature, I want to look at the cultural values that perpetuate this idea of the unemployed as doing nothing and why it’s seen as wrong for us to give them money.

Our cultural values and norms about work and income security have been partly shaped by our focus on economic development based on a monetary notion of productivity. The importance placed on the economy above everything else has allowed the values of our economic system to influence our understanding of work and the intrinsic worth of human beings.

Just as we measure “growth” in Canada by the market value of all goods and services produced (GDP), we often value “productive” work and “productive” people according to how much money they make. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien once said that it was better for the unemployed to be “at 50 per cent productivity than to be sitting home drinking beer at zero per cent productivity.”

This tendency includes placing a value on how much people’s labour is worth. To a certain extent, the value is related to what is produced by a person’s labour, with those positions that lead to greater production bringing greater remuneration. Being the chief executive officer of a large multinational corporation pays much better than being a community social worker, for instance.

But there is also a value placed on labour according to the person’s worth. Some criteria, such as skill, education and experience, are explicit. Other criteria, including gender, race and social connections, are not overtly associated with wages, although statistics show that they are related to earning potential. Women, for instance, still make less on average than men: in 2003, women working on a full-time, full-year basis in Canada had average earnings of only 71% compared to their male counterparts.

There is also a belief that everyone has equal access to education, experience and skills development. In practice, access is also determined by economic class, gender, race, citizenship and life experience. But because many people believe that there is equal opportunity, we tend to assume that those who do not pursue greater earning potential lack initiative and therefore deserve to earn less.

The result of all of these attitudes is that we view those who are on social assistance as “free-loaders” – an unproductive burden on those who are productive. They are taking public money, produced by taxpayers, but they are not doing their fair share.

However, the problem with this link between income and working is that the expectation of working for your income only applies to the poor. It is considered perfectly acceptable for the middleclass and the wealthy to make income without working, by generating income from privately-owned property or through investments and speculation.

Whereas social assistance is considered public money, property and investments are viewed as private and therefore a just recognition of hard work and personal initiative. Of course, while some accumulated wealth is the result of hard work and initiative, public infrastructure and services contribute to successful businesses; therefore, profit and inherited wealth aren’t simply the result of personal effort.

Additionally, financial speculation, while lucrative, does not contribute to real production and cannot be considered socially useful. In fact, given the recent economic crisis, it should be viewed with great skepticism as potentially harmful to economic and social well-being. The poor are being held to a greater standard of social and economic usefulness than the wealthy.

The emphasis on working for income for low income earners increases the possibility of exploitation of people who must participate in the workforce at all costs. It also contributes to a down-grading of work from a meaningful, beneficial activity that adds value to people’s lives to merely any activity done for money. It excludes many valuable activities that happen in the home or community that do not involve exchanges of money, including caring for children or for elderly parents.

In order to truly value people and their activities, regardless of income, we need to relinquish our focus on productivity and re-focus our attention on people.

Chandra Pasma is CPJ's former Public Justice Policy Analyst.

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