In the endless, painful, exhausting conversation around the minimum wage being raised to the pittance of $15 an hour, I keep returning to the fact that many people - hundreds of millions of them - have resigned themselves to a fate that is entirely centered around work. We are raised to work, we are trained to work, we spend almost every moment of schooling preparing ourselves, on some level, to get a job, so that we can pay money to stay alive, so that we can pay for health insurance, and we put enough money into retirement so that we can, when we are physically unable to work, keep paying for stuff until we die.
When the idea of Universal Basic Income - or even just monthly checks and higher unemployment payments - are raised, there are some people who make a statement around how people will simply choose not to work, because the unemployment payments will sustain them. This is ghoulish on some very basic levels:
- If they’re being paid more for being unemployed then perhaps they were underpaid.
- The presumption that those who choose not to work are “lazy” is a naturally grotesque assumption of why people don’t work and why people would not want to work. First of all, why would you want to work if you didn’t have to? I like my job and I would gladly, if I could not work, choose not to work if I got more money not working. What’s wrong with you?
- The accusation of laziness is in itself rooted heavily in classism and racism - the myth of the welfare queen, the mythical lazy poor person that just doesn’t work hard enough to get out of the poorness and into the not-poorness, whatever that is and whatever that may be.
- The laziness factor also doesn’t seem to account for the fact that the people choosing to not work and instead take unemployment are likely doing jobs that absolutely fucking suck, and are terrible, even if they weren’t doing so during a pandemic where any asshole who comes in could potentially give them a deadly virus that would send them into a spiral of sickness, debt and potential death.
Putting aside that UBI has been established to actually cause people to work more, we as residents and citizens of America have just decided that we’re fine with the unfairness, and in fact that we should succeed and overcome these obstacles as if they are things that make us stronger, despite the fact that the dice are rigged against most people.
It goes beyond the pandemic and beyond the simple case that most people can’t get a job. Talk to anyone over, say, 60 years old and ask them what people should do, and they’ll probably say have kids, buy a home, settle down, all things that are increasingly out of the reach of most people. Having a kid is incredibly expensive, and never gets cheaper.
The credit system of America is built specifically to encumber people with debt that truly allows them to move laterally through society, built in a byzantine fashion to crush people who make a mistake and never, ever give them credit for being careful with their money. Want to get a mortgage? Well, that’s a totally different ballgame, one that doesn’t take into account your rental history unless it’s bad, in which case it just allows them to shut the door quicker. Our credit system is built with one specific victor in mind - those who can manipulate it. Buying a house, even if you’ve ten years of unfettered, perfectly-delivered rent payments, is an act of financial masochism with the end result that you own bricks and mortar that you’ll hopefully pay off in 30 years. You must bleed documentation and show them how financially stable you are at length and also show them a credit score that is based on so many different variables that even the people selling you the mortgage can’t really explain it.
Yet people will still tell you that simply working hard enough is what people require to get out of their respective holes. It’s not just boomers who are spouting it - I’ve heard people my age suggest that being born in America is a natural advantage and that anyone can make it here, assuming they work hard enough. “People shouldn’t rely on handouts” say the people that have had the ability to go to college, or the ability to go to high school, or didn’t happen to be born in a bad neighborhood and go to a bad school and thus never get into a good enough college, or happen to be born a color that mortgage companies don’t like.
The pandemic will pass, but every one of these problems is going to continue. People are working harder than ever to make money that doesn’t go that far, and people still claim they should work harder. “Just save,” they say, as people pay $200 to $500 a month in medical bills. “You can get a house, it just takes work” they say to people who make $15 an hour, that still have to pay rent. “Why not try investing?” they say to people with little or no disposable income. “Watch YouTube videos to learn stuff!” they say to people who are exhausted from working 8 to 12 hour days five to seven days a week with barely enough time to piss.
Looking at everything - at how hard it is to live even a fucking mediocre life - why would you want to work? How can you look at the life of the average person and think that they have a good shot at buying a home, or living a semi-comfortable life? How can you not look at the huge mountain they have to climb and have the gall to say that they should just work harder to overcome it? What is your advice? Just hold out and hope you get lucky? Work and work and work and work and work and work and work and hope you’re lucky enough to find a way to climb the corporate ladder in a job market that has never been more crowded?
The cruelty of American Society isn’t simply in its unfairness, but in the fact that your fellow people actively support and canvas for said unfairness. They want to keep it the same way because it’s a way of justifying their own privilege - many people can’t face the fact that they got lucky two, or three, or a hundred times over, because luck suggests that their hard work wasn’t part of it. They’re people who are babies - so fragile on the inside that they can’t see that, yes, they worked hard and got stuff, but there were advantages along the way, and that acknowledging said advantages doesn’t discount the work they did.
People are so attached to their struggles and their own narratives that they will ignore their own privilege and hold others down just to make themselves feel more heroic.
When I ask you to have empathy for people, I recognize it’s difficult and rife with cognitive dissonance. But realize - and be grateful for - the luck you’ve had, the advantages you’ve had, and don’t mistake said advantages as the equivalent struggle of those who had lives without them. We need to start thinking deeply about the things we say to people and the way we say them, and stop trying to crush people who want $15 an hour, or want a stable life, or want an easier life. Everyone should want an easier life. We shouldn’t have to work. And we definitely shouldn’t have to work this hard.