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(April 1999) [Printed in "Reality Module No.9" under the title "Democratic Humanism (1)."]

Democratic Humanism (2)

The View from the High Tower
Planet Earth, and What I Found There!
A Guaranteed Minimum Standard of Living
Keys to Solving Unemployment

Related Essays
Feedback and Discussions

"The [United Nation's annual 'Human Development Report'] ...said that the world's 225 richest people have a combined wealth of more than $US 1 trillion, equal to the annual income of the poorest 47 per cent of the world's population - about 2.5 billion people."

From "The poverty gap gets wider" in The Age September 12, 1998.

"Four children in every ten live in poverty in Australia, according to a report.

"The report, Children in Poverty" Lost Expectations by charity Mission Australia, argues that social security support is no longer sufficient for poor families."

From Food For Thought : Official Newsletter of Foodbank Victoria. Summer/Autumn 1998.


Hello! In this essay I'll be looking at poverty, unemployment and a few of the related issues.

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The View from the High Tower:

From far far away the solution to poverty seems pretty obvious.

Have you come across attitudes like these?

"It's laziness. If all those unemployed dole bludgers got off their fat arses and went out and got a job - we wouldn't have to support them with our taxes!"

"The dole lets them live cushy lives without having to put in a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. If we cut off their dole that would force them to go out and get a job."

"The government's too kind to these parasites!"

"Hard work never did me any harm. Youth nowadays have got it too easy. They think the world owes them a living."

Yes - the solution to poverty is a job and a pay packet.

Very nice. Very simple. But where does this "solution" fall down?

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Planet Earth, and What I Found There!:

I feel qualified to speak about unemployment and job-hunting - having had first hand experience.

The facts are:
1. The dole is not generous.
2. Jobs are not easy to get.

Last time I was unemployed (April 1998) the dole plus rent assistance came to $396.20 a fortnight. Of this almost 70% went to pay my rent, and I was left with $8.59 a day to cover everything else - food, bills, stationery, etc. [1]

How'd I survive? Simple! I was doing contract work. I'd have a job which might last a day, a couple of weeks, or a few months. During those times I lived frugally and built up my bank account - so that when I was next 'between jobs' I'd have a cash reserve.

The downsides were that when I was working I had to minimise luxuries because I had to save, and when I was unemployed I lived more frugally still and had the additional stress of never knowing when my next job might turn up and watching my bank balance get smaller and smaller and smaller.

(There are strategies for reducing expenditure - but like selling off my assets, some are strategies of last resort.)

The dole itself was about $321 a fortnight. You can survive on it if you live in a shared house in an untrendy suburb; buy secondhand clothes & plain label food (no eating out); don't run a car or use public transport much; don't go out to concerts, films; and avoid even small luxuries.

You can survive on the dole, but it is hardly a cushy lifestyle.

Why was I doing contract work? Because it was the only work I could get!

Since coming back from England in 1993 I have sent off maybe 500 job application letters during several different periods of unemployment. (I've had several jobs - the longest lasted 11 months.) During the period from 1993 to 1998 I noticed these trends:

  1. My ratio of interviews to application letters plunged. (Even though I have gained more experience, and have produced a much improved resumé.)

  2. The courtesy of would-be employers has dropped. (In 1993 I would nearly always get a letter of acknowledgment, and a polite rejection letter later on when I'd applied for a job. In 1998 my application letters went off, and more often than not I'd never get any feedback from the employer. When I've rung they have said it was "due to the volume of replies" - but I consider it to be bad manners.)

  3. The expectations employers have from job applicants has soared! (How many times have I rung up for a job description - and got it only to find the employer wanted you to have some obscure skill or several years experience in exactly the same sort of position? Many times! Many times I've felt I could do the job - but I lacked the experience they demanded. It is very frustrating! Look at the ads for sandwich-hands, cleaners, telesales people - they all want experience. It's even hard to get menial jobs nowadays - the ultimate was an advertisement I saw for an Office Cleaner which required you to have a Certificate of Municipal Waste Management!)

Do you now understand how difficult finding a job has become? Do you now understand why so many unemployed people become frustrated, depressed and demoralised?

Then there is the hurdle of the job interview. I hate job interviews! I'm nervous, I get tongue-tied sometimes, and they nearly always ask at least one moronic or curly question. I've got better at interviews - I've had dozens of interviews now, and I've built up a 'dumb questions file' which I've memorised. Still selling myself at interview is something I find very hard.

(It may explain why I only got contract jobs - the employers want someone in a hurry and they don't care whether you can or can't speak Medieval Swahili. The interviews are a casual thing - as a former boss said to me once: "We just want to make sure you haven't got two heads.")

I've been in part-time employment since December. Now only 53% of my income goes in rent, and I've got $17.40 a day spending money! (Looking for another part-time job is my current challenge.)

I am well-educated, reasonably well-presented, have several years experience in my occupation, and am reasonably articulate - and I have difficulty finding work.

Imagine what it would be like looking for work if you were poorly-educated, didn't present well, had no experience, or had poor communication skills? (The "employment game" has become a sell-yourself-hard, dog-eat-dog game. I hate it this way - but it is Australia in 1999 and I have to live with it.)

I believe meaningful employment and a living wage are non-negotiable fundamental human rights - and the failure to provide a job to all citizens who want to work is a violation of these human rights which must be rectified.

(I'm not blaming the Government for this - though they could do more to fix the problems - the blames lies with all corporations and individuals who actively or passively restrict the availability of meaningful and accessible paid employment in our society.)

Now lets glance at some creative solutions.

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A Guaranteed Minimum Standard of Living:

All citizens would be guaranteed:

  1. Housing,
  2. Food and drink,
  3. Basic amenities,
  4. Basic educational facilities,
  5. Basic health and dental care,
  6. Basic legal services,
  7. Some spending money,

as a right and free of charge.

Of course the living quarters would be somewhat spartan, the food unpretentious, and the stipend modest - but it is a minimum which would be granted to the citizen as a right. (You can think of it as a safety-net against destitution. If you lose your job and run out of money - you will always have these things to fall back on. It would eliminate the modern atrocities of homelessness and poverty.)

Citizens would be encouraged to work as this would enable them to move to better housing, enjoy a better standard of living, and - of course - have a more interesting and satisfying life.

There are several issues here:

  1. How do we pay for it? (We would need a tax system which would cover the cost of these facilities for those who need them. Is a tax regime possible which would not be too burdensome for the citizens, but could still provide the guaranteed minimum standard of living for everybody?)

  2. How do we find a quality balance for these basic facilities which will both enable the citizen who has fallen on hard times to live with dignity, but which isn't so nice that they won't have an incentive to seek employment and an improved lifestyle? (I suspect this will closely link with 1.)

  3. How do we re-introduce the concept of the 'common good' so that well-off citizens would be willing to make financial sacrifices so that everyone (on average) can be better off?

The threat of such a system is that people may become complacent and not look for work - the financial burden of maintaining the 'safety-net' will fall to fewer and fewer increasingly cheezed-off citizens.

I think it is a nice idea, but it will require an economic analysis to see if it is a viable option.

How do we solve the problems of the unemployed (and under-incomed) worker in our society?

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Keys to Solving Unemployment!:

There are many thorny issues, and nothing exists in isolation from everything else.

Strategies must address:

  1. The unemployed person's needs.

  2. The current and future needs of industry and other employers.

  3. New employment opportunities.

  4. Irrational beliefs and ideologies.

  5. Enhancing the perceived value of the employee (Seen as an 'asset' and not an 'expense to be minimised).

Each in turn.

1. The unemployed person's needs.

In the short term the best way to help the unemployed is to provide them with training so that they can rightfully claim to have the skills employers want. (This should also involve a paid-more-than-the-dole work placement program.)

The unemployed should be able to do any training course they feel they need to. (Training should be perceived as a right and not a privilege. It should be available to all unemployed people regardless of their period of job hunting. Why? The sooner a person gains competence in a new skill - the sooner they might get a job as a result. This is good for the economy because an employed person has more money than a job-hunter, and they will buy more things, which helps the economy grow.)

The Government has recently introduced a training voucher system which goes part of the way towards dealing with this issue.

Job-hunters could also have training on how to create a good impression at job interviews, and how to effectively sell their skills.

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2. The current and future needs of industry and other employers.

We all know about skills shortages in Australia. How companies have to bring skilled-migrants in from overseas because there aren't enough appropriately-skilled people available locally.

There are many reasons for this. One is the lag phase between the commencement of a training program and the first graduation of newly- qualified people. (You can't always predict what new industries will blossom.)

Another is the unwillingness of too many companies to invest in staff- development. (It is too often approached in a just-in-time fashion, which isn't good enough).

A major problem is lack of medium to long term planning. An important symptom of this is Australia's too small investment in basic research and development. (Research isn't an "expense" - it's an "investment." The potential benefits can be returns a hundred, a thousand times the original investment. Think of the number of new jobs that could provide?)

3. New employment opportunities.

There are many new employment opportunities - especially in the service industries.

It is a fundamental economic law that 'money begets money' - you need money to make money.

The Government makes loans to would-be small businesses for this reason. It is also the way the Grameen Bank operates.

Now a little 'service' can make life easier for all of us, and can make our environment a better place. By investing in services like - for example, child care and urban park maintenance - you not only provide new jobs, you improve the quality of life (and happiness) of everybody.

This is a big issue - which can be looked at in more detail later.

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4. Irrational beliefs and ideologies.

The biggest irrational belief we have to deal with is economic rationalism - the absurd belief that you make work places better by cutting back on staff and by eroding working conditions.

Downsizing has many well-documented negative effects:

  1. It puts staff under more stress (which damages morale and also results in more absenteeism),

  2. It lowers the quality of the work which is performed (staff don't have the time to perform their tasks with the care that is really required),

  3. The level of operational knowledge is savagely decreased (often the oldest, more-experienced workers are the first to be retrenched - and they are the ones who understand the work practices best. The remaining staff have no 'mentor' to turn to. If staff-turnover is high, the level of expertise is further reduced),

  4. Customers get more cheezed-off which is bad for business (no-one likes to telephone and be put on hold, or find that the staff are so inexperienced they don't know how they should properly deal with your problem), and lastly,

  5. It destroys staff comradrie (if you fear you might be the next for the 'chop' - why would you help a work-colleague and give them an advantage in taking over your job?)

5. Enhancing the perceived value of the employee (Seen as an 'asset' and not an 'expense to be minimised).

At the moment we have an employer's job-market. This means that employers can demand the highest skills (and sometimes even get them), but it also means that job-hunters are stressed, frustrated, and can feel that they are competing with thousands of others which (to an employer) must make them seem indistinguishable.

This has actually resulted in some stupid beliefs in employers about employees. The most insidious is the belief that job-seekers must be experienced because, of course, they aren't able to pick up skills on the job (!).

In short - employers must begin to perceive the unique value of employees. Employees (all of them) are intelligent, have common-sense, are able to adapt to change and new situations, and best-of-all have the brains to work out ways of improving the way things are done and can even contribute to the organisation's strategic planning!

When employers realise how valuable employees can really be - they'll want to have more of them!

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These are a few ideas about what can be done to deal with the problem of poverty, and some thoughts on dealing with unemployment.

(There are lots of other ideas but I think this is enough for now).

And I haven't even mentioned the Negative Income Tax or "Jubilee 2000!"


[1]. From these figures you can work out my rent and income - if you really want to.

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Related Essays

- Origins of these ideas -
Future Imperfect - Part 1 - Gathering the Threads (February 1998)
Future Imperfect - Part 2 - Weaving the Tapestry (April 1998)

- In This Series -
Democratic Humanism (1) - What Are Genuine Human Needs? (February 1999)
Democratic Humanism (2) (April 1999)
Democratic Humanism (3) - Know Your Dragon (June 1999)
Democratic Humanism (4) - Maslow Meets the Economic Rationalists (August 2000)
Democratic Humanism (5) - Fostering Change From Within (June 2001)
Democratic Humanism (6) - The Getting of Wisdom (December 2001)


Feedback and Discussions

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Copyright © 1999 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.


Last Updated: 28 August 2003