Thursday, 2 October 2014

Pre-Paid Benefit Cards

Pre-paid benefit cards are an idea recently suggested by the government which would withdraw cash from the unemployed and replace it with a card which can be used in supermarkets and with little flexibility.  The emphasis in the reports I've seen is on not being able to use it for gambling, tobacco and alcohol, among other things.  This is of course paternalistic and patronising, and an important point, but I want to concentrate on something else which is equally important.

Here in Leicester, we have a fantastic open air market.  Due to the low overheads involved, we are able to buy very cheap food.  A friend of mine pointed out, when I costed a recipe for one of our regular meals, that she would find it completely unaffordable because she lacks that facility.  These are small business owners, often sole traders, whose income would be considerably reduced if this policy were brought in.  It could of course be said that jobseekers' allowance amounts to subsidy for these people, but the same can be said of housing benefit for house owners.  Part of the point of money, supposedly, is that it's supposed to circulate, and do so widely.  This goes against that.  If money is confined to being spent in supermarkets, it's not clear that this would benefit the rest of the economy.  Even this, though, isn't my main point.

Back when I was unemployed rather than self-underemployed, one of the biggest subjective barriers to finding work was what I perceived to be the difficulty in finding out much about the ethical status of my "potential" employers.  In the Job Centre, for example, the names of the employers concerned weren't on the cards (clearly this was some time ago).  My eventual solution to the problem of unemployment, and of course it isn't a particularly good one, was to train as a herbalist and become self-employed, although it is more self-underemployed for several reasons, not all of which are addressable.  That wasn't the only reason for doing that although it was quite an important one.  If you're self-employed, you're more accountable for your actions morally than if you're an employee.  The decision you make as a potential employee to take a job makes your life an ethical quagmire because you then have to do what people tell you even if you're not sure their values are the same as yours.

This introduces the same problem.  Unfortunately I do shop at supermarkets a little nowadays although not at the notorious one and not more than I have to, because of their dubious moral status.  I would prefer to be giving my money to people I know and who are trying to make the best ethical choices given that all money is dirt, but even so.  If I had a "food stamp" system, which for me would be permanent of course - there would be no option to find paid work with an employer once I was in that situation as it's been clearly ascertained that this is impossible for me - I would be forced to compromise and do things I knew to be wrong.  This is an aspect of the pre-paid benefit card which has not been mentioned much.

So if you're unemployed and this is introduced, you would no longer be able to support small independent retailers to the extent you now have a choice to do, or to exercise positive ethical choices. So is the government saying that doing the right thing is a luxury?  That would remove their activities and policies from any pretence of morality.  You can buy an apple provided it's not organic, is flown from the other side of the world and sold by dissatisfied employees paid a pittance to nothing and probably not even unionised (although don't get me started - complex issue), but you can't buy an apple from a small, organic local farm, not because you're poor and can't afford it but because you're just not allowed to.