|"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."|
“Get a job, you lazy good-for-nothing!”
Generally, that admonition means, “Find employment; search out a person or company that needs someone to do work you can do and for which they are willing to pay . . . and stop expecting others to feed, house and entertain you while you sleep late and pick at your navel.”
There was a time when our self-sufficiency was directly tied to our work, when eating a potato followed planting, hilling, hoeing and harvesting that potato. When buttering your bread followed milking a cow, separating the milk, churning the cream and adding the right amount of salt. Whether a long day’s activities included catching some fish, hunting down a few rabbits, nailing boards together for a shelter or pulling weeds under a hot sun, our time and our energies had to be given to jobs, and the thoroughness and efficiency with which we did these jobs paid off directly in our well-being.
People who slept late fared poorly; people who worked hard had good shelter, good food and probably a surplus they could trade for luxuries.
Except that with the industrial revolution, the view of people as production inputs initiated a new view of humanity that tied people to the factory, to a dependency on the "charity" of the owners of the means of production.
The drive in research and development has always been to produce more with less work. It appears that as a human species, we abhor work, that we acknowledge less and less the premise that our food, shelter and recreation must come at the expense of work, of putting in time at a demanding, possibly tedious job for someone else. But in a world, finally, where robots build self-driving cars, where tons of flour can be milled in a day by one man sitting in front of a console, where giant machines with a few operators plant and harvest our food crops, where computers and printers can churn out perfect copies of all the great literature of the world with a modicum of work (as we used to think of it), getting a job can become more and more uncertain.
Physical work, particularly, is not needed nearly as much as it once was. Granted, mental work is still required in the communications/technology and service areas but there too, the drive is toward rendering jobs an obsolete concept. Finally, a super computer can build a far better system in far less time and with far less effort than can a bunch of people on a factory floor or office complex juggling widgets, typing in data for 48 hours a week. (The only sectors I can think of where work is increasing and jobs are still offered in agreeable measure are the service and hospitality sectors; with an aging population and the increase in leisure time, healthcare, education, travel and fast food are thriving.)
So where are the newly unemployable to go to earn their daily bread?
Because we currently measure the health of an economy by Gross National Product, Trade Surplus/Deficit, Employment, House Prices, Stock Market Indicies and other statistical data, the true purpose of an economy is easily forgotten. An economy is—in the final analysis—the means for distributing resources among people so that the necessities of life are made available to everyone. Were we to plan our economies on this basis, our world would look much different.
The need to patch up the failures of our economies through food banks, soup kitchens, social assistance grudgingly and skimpily given, “free” health care, etc., provides a far more pertinent measure of our economic success/failure than does the Dow-Jones index. As good as the charitable act may feel to those who are able to perform it, there is no way to avoid the degradation the recipient experiences. The indignity of accepting the necessities of life through charity because one is unable, unwilling or unprepared to earn what one needs . . . is unavoidable.
Charity—in the end—produces the need for itself. If meaningful jobs are the standard of worthiness, of the deserving of the necessities of life, then we have missed the point of economy. At the same time, we’ve sacrificed our insistence on dignity, self-esteem for everyone.
What’s better: handing out clothes to a person who can’t afford them when winter sets in, or enabling the individual to walk into a store and choose the clothing he/she will wear? The cost economically speaking is the same; the politics of the choices is very, very different.
As job offerings and opportunities change, as the spread between those who have means and those who don’t widens, we need to pay close attention to the reasons and the consequences of what we allow and don’t in our economies. In a world where a single government policy can undo a mass of charitable effort, the principle that Christians, for instance, ought first of all to be economists and politicians if they wish to emulate Jesus’ concern for the poor surely presents itself. To be “in the world, but not of the world” is, in the end, a doctrine of spiritual self-preservation.
As Christians (and all others who embrace a spiritual understanding of life), we need to continue to be at the forefront of charitable endeavour, especially as it relates to natural disasters and desperate populations. But our focus must include a working toward the end of the need for charity.
Progress has been made: we no longer have poor houses, debtors’ prisons, beggars in the streets. We do have Old Age Security, Child Benefits, Income Supplements, Universal Healthcare, Social Assistance, a patchwork of remedies for destitution caused by sickness, poverty, age or handicap.
A guaranteed annual income could eliminate all these supports at less cost, with less administration and with the prospect of greater self-worth, dignity for all.
Let’s, at least, talk about it.