Sweden is on the cusp of pushing through a cross-party welfare reform which will both guarantee a minimum level of unemployment benefit and allow higher earners to insure against the risk of unemployment. This week a parliamentary commission came to agreement on reforming the unemployment benefits system in a way which will accommodate the twin requirements of maintaining a reasonable standard of state benefit and accommodating well established union-linked unemployment insurance funds.
One of the big lessons in the UK of the financial crisis and subsequent recession has been that, rather than unemployment benefit being the preserve of all those fabled tracksuit-wearing benefit scroungers, a large number of middle income people with families to feed and mortgages to pay found themselves having to survive on Jobseeker’s Allowance and what savings they may have had. The cruel irony of wealth is that the more people accrue in terms of financial obligations (and there are very few who are lucky enough to be able to buy houses, cars and much else outright), the larger the fall when their income stream is taken away from them.
A signature visual trope of the global financial crisis has been Americans bedding down for the night in tents and cars after losing their homes – the product of a society where there is no real apparatus for helping people cope with a sudden inability to meet their financial obligations when unemployed, and very little consumer protection to stop banks doing as they please.
Now the bottom-most rung in Scotland were poor before the recession, are poor during and will most likely be poor afterward if we continue with the current financial and welfare model. What is more concerning is when people who are, in statistical terms, safe and middle class find themselves spiralling downward. Even if downsizing is an inevitability, many do not even have the time to take stock of their assets before the wolf comes knocking. This underlines one of the biggest problems with contemporary society – the constant fear experienced by those without significant liquid assets that their life might vanish in an instant.
Jobs for life are now a thing of the past. People pursue multiple careers and during that time they will often spend months between jobs – months in which bills need to be paid, mortgages serviced and essentials bought.
It is of course unworkable that, without taxing everybody at eighty per cent, we should expect state unemployment support to replace the income of somebody earning upwards of 40,000 pounds a year. It is however morally and economically necessary to provide a basic level of income support which allows people to survive unemployment with their dignity and will to work intact.
The Swedish reform is designed to unify the roles of state unemployment benefit and the so-called ‘A-Kassa’, or unemployment fund. This is in effect a form of insurance against unemployment which, like a pension fund, is paid into and grows from private contributions, but is protected by the state. In the event of unemployment it then pays out at a rate relative to earnings which will function as a cushion above and beyond the basic level of unemployment benefit.
It is very difficult to make a moral case for taxpayers’ money being used to defend the accumulated assets of individuals above the basic standard of living which everyone in our society should enjoy, but it IS in the public interest that those on medium incomes should be given a framework of protection which will prevent them from entering a downward spiral. One of the most absurd things about the UK government’s current welfare reforms is the insistence that the system should be completely devoid of any cushioning elements whatsoever. As we all know, the stress and fear of losing everything you have ever worked for is the best possible motivation for finding a new job as quickly as possible. Why else would the men with the most embrace a welfare system which takes this as one of its core beliefs?
Imagine, for example, that you are a self-employed shop-owner or a freelance consultant of some form. In a good year you might hope to take 50,000 pounds or so, but come a recession, or a decision by your landlord to hire your premises to someone else, your work may dry up. As there is no severance package, you are essentially on your own. You might, in theory, have some assets which you could turn into liquid capital by remortgaging your house, or raiding your pension, but neither of these are particularly sensible long term options. Neither is it a question of lifestyle. You might possibly try and save energy, buy cheaper food and go out less, but these things will never vanish completely. Moreover, not having a miserable life and staying positive when unemployed is actually quite important, so eating Lidl value pasta seven days a week and leaving people to the joys of daytime television for lack of opportunity to do anything is not the kind of lifestyle we should be forcing people into.
Now, the beauty of the A-kassa system is that it makes a direct link between work and the amount of money you get back. It is in the interests of benefit claimants to seek work (combined with measures such as the living wage where working is actually a means by which people can take control of their own lives instead of servicing somebody else’s), and once you start paying in you can expect the fund to pay out. This is all in addition to your basic state unemployment benefit. Before anybody accuses me of wishing to burden people with more tax to pay for the unemployed, I should point out that this is a proportional tax which benefits the people who pay it. Like National Insurance, it builds upon the idea that not everybody will become ill at the same time, but that in the event of illness the cost burden has already been dealt with or will be dealt with through future payments. We can try to build a society where fewer people become ill in the first place, just as we can try and remove the scourge of unemployment through more sustainable economics and foresight, but neither illness nor unemployment will ever vanish completely.
Becoming unemployed is actually a fairly natural event which will likely happen to many of us at some point, and it is time that we had a welfare system which recognised that unemployment is not the preserve of only the poorest. Green policy already envisages a basic level of income via the citizen’s wage, a simple and basic unit of government benefit essentially payable to all, but in the majority of cases recouped via higher tax receipts. The A-kassa system is designed as protection above and beyond this, meaning that unemployment need not result in the spectre of home repossession, rental eviction or severe financial hardship, and that working pays even when unemployment rears its head – a particular help to people working in changeable, short contract jobs. It also has the benefit of allowing people to feel that they are investing instead of throwing tax money at something which is of no benefit to them,
Not everything from Sweden is great, but breaking down the work/benefits dichotomy and helping people to recover from unemployment is something which can only ever be a public good.