Political earthquakes taking the form of Brexit and the US presidential election have brought inequality, globalisation and automation into public debate. Global trade and new technologies have made the world a richer place, but have failed to address the worsening domestic inequalities found in many advanced economies.
In the UK, the worst examples of domestic inequality are often found in deindustrialised areas. Already victims of global competition and then chronic underinvestment, a third punch to the gut was administered through the financial recession and following austerity. Families find themselves at increased risk of poverty by virtue of where they live, and the increasing casualisation of work doesn’t help. The increase in zero-hour contracts leave some trapped in an involuntary cycle of low paying work and unemployment. The rise in self-employment bodes ill too. The Resolution Foundation estimates that the average wages (in real terms) of the self-employed are lower now than they were in 1995.
It should be no surprise that a rage is building against the machine. For some the wheels are falling off, for others it stalled long ago. Allowing this state of affairs to continue will only drive further division in our society. Policies going forward must recognise the failure to address these inequalities over the last 40 years. It must also recognise that though cash transfers support those suffering from poverty and unemployment, they do little to change the forces at work that cause these inequalities in the first place. Structural changes are needed across the economy in order to build one that provides everyone with the choice of a fair wage and the social benefits that stable employment can bring.
One way to begin tackling inequality would be the introduction of a voluntary job guarantee, giving unemployed individuals the choice to work on public projects for their local community and improve their skills, in exchange for a socially inclusive wage. With proper implementation a job guarantee could serve as a powerful tool around which structural economic issues could be solved.
First, it promotes a minimum standard of employment. Earning your keep shouldn’t mean submitting yourself to exploitation. Giving employees an alternative would encourage firms to improve practices and compete to retain their employees, promoting higher productivity and work standards that benefit us all. Firms that can only compete because they subject employees to poor work conditions would be rooted out. In the end the job guarantee is always there to support displaced employees as the economy changes meaning nobody loses out.
The job guarantee also provides a direct channel for local investment. Administering the scheme through local agencies would ensure projects are planned around the specific needs of each community and its residents, avoiding a top-down approach. Investment wouldn’t only target structural needs, but also environmental and cultural ones which would enrich and enable communities in ways that profit-focused investment might not be able to.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a job guarantee is focused on the individual. The skills and interests of those on the scheme are matched to the needs of their community (with some compromise). A job isn’t just about earning an income, but also a way to develop and improve ourselves. A job can be an outlet where we share our potential and passion for the benefit of those around us.
Would we rather support others by giving them the chance to contribute to society, whilst improving their skills and knowledge?
Or do we leave them on a scrapheap of excess labour, marginalise them and sacrifice what their potential could have brought into the world?
The answer should be clear.