We are living in nasty times. The welfare state, a mark of civilization, has come to be seen as a thing of shame. Thousands struggling to find employment, and many more topping up poverty wages with tax credits, are castigated as ‘scroungers’. But it would be naïve to suppose that nobody ever chooses to continue to live on benefits when a job is available. It is a commonly assumed that choosing welfare over a job is always objectionable. It is this assumption I would like to question here.
Let’s begin with a more extreme case than our own. For many in Bangladesh, the only option to get food on the table is to work 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week, in dangerous conditions, for £25 a month. Suppose there was magically another option: a welfare state, funded from the taxes of the rich, which allowed a basic standard of living. Would it be wrong for an individual to take advantage of this option in order to avoid being exploited? I suggest not. Of course the reason I describe this situation as ‘magical’ is that, if there were such an option, the terrible exploitation which exists in Bangladesh would not be possible. In a grossly unequal situation, the welfare state gives a degree of power to the vulnerable worker, facilitating her right to refuse to be exploited.
I don’t want to claim that the labour situation here is anywhere near as bad as it is in Bangladesh. But our situation is far from just. It is unacceptable in a wealthy country, where some are paid thousands of times more than they need, that some workers are paid less than a living wage, less than we deem sufficient for a basic standard of living. The right to refuse to work for less than the living wage, made possible by the existence of the welfare state, creates social pressure to raise wages to an acceptable level. Arguably workers do nothing wrong when they exercise this right.
None of this is to deny that it’s better to work than to live on social security. But the way forward is not to strip thousands of their dignity, of the basic money they need to heat their houses and feed their children. It’s to make the distribution of rewards more just, to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and to create a society in which everyone has a stake.