One of the great parts about having your own forum like this is that you get to direct how content is determined. Now I have to admit that I got roundly criticized, and appropriately so, for going all over the place with my subject matter when I first started this project. Initially, I thought this was going to be a business-oriented effort targeted at the Professional Individual Contributor or PIC. It took about a year to come up with a better defined theme for my work which is really the collision points between work and life for the (typically non-management) working professional. Sometimes I will talk about things that are challenging in our personal lives. Sometimes I will focus on our professional lives and the trends and challenges of our ever evolving professional environments. In most cases, the two intersect in some way that isn’t complementary, hence my evolved focus area.
Every now and again I can stretch my topics a bit and still stay peripherally within my continuing narrative. As an example I often complain about the challenges we face as the professional world transitions away from a post World War II boom to a turn of the century bust with the commensurate correction in our quality of life. Unfortunately, at least for the bigger picture items, I rarely offer solutions. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t really thought about the solutions as I discussed these challenges in my writing over the years. I tend to be practical and try and concentrate where I can affect positive change on an individual level. I’m a big thinker but not necessarily a corporate magnate who can drive seismic societal solutions to fruition.
In trying to be more positive as well as give my work some cohesion over the course of the next year an idea percolated up to put together a series of articles that discuss our biggest problems and my take on potential solutions. To that end I have come up with: Big problems, Big Solutions. This new series will attempt to explore the causes of some of the greatest challenges of our time.
Big problems can be really big. We regularly hear about topics like ‘the welfare state’ or the ‘student loan crisis’ which affects the entire societal infrastructure, and yet I think as the professional class, these problems hit us the hardest. As an example, we pay for welfare but don’t usually get to partake in any of the benefits of the program. Some problems aren’t specifically here yet, but we can see that we are careening headlong to a potential massive disaster such as America’s retirement crisis (assuming you believe in traditional retirement). I’ve found that the path that leads to the creation of these issues can be a fascinating story in and of itself and often gives clues on how to fix the problems. In many instances the solutions are obvious if you think about them a little bit, sometimes not so much. One of the goals of this series is to educate. We will explore the causes of the issues and offer solutions that have not been tried. There will be some research and data included in my solutions but I’ll try and keep that mostly to a minimum. I intend for the history and root cause analysis in these articles to be a simple reassessment and to give a foundation needed to rethink problems from a non-traditional position. Fair warning: In some cases I think much of what i’ll talk about will be very uncomfortable realities if you are politically sensitive.
So now that I have introduced the series, let’s start with one of the most interesting problems that we deal with day in and day out.
Big Problem: Chronic Underachievers in Life
There is the professional class. These are the people who by and large do everything right. They go to school, sometimes because their parents can afford it, sometimes, because they take out student loans. They get a job that requires more advanced skills, work hard, and try to manage everything according to best practices of their day. They try and work into affluence where they find opportunity or they are prideful in being as professional as they can be in their individual contributor roles. This class has swelled as education has expanded and old school manufacturing has left the first world nations. Just because there is a great deal more office and service workers, doesn’t mean that there isn’t also the working class, the blue collar from days past. The technician, the welder, the mechanic and many other trades still exist en masse, if not the dominant members of the workforce. These trade folks pretty much do the same thing as the professional class, only they are more artisans in their craft of choice with limited aspirations for management or leadership. There are personality quirks to both professionals and tradespeople but for the most part both groups fit into the working world. Then there is a whole other class of people.
Traditionally we used the phrase the welfare class, but welfare has changed, so rather than call it the welfare class, or the disability class, I prefer to call it the chronic underachiever class. Technically this group can work, but they just aren’t successful at it. Maybe they are so damaged emotionally that they have personality conflicts that keep them from holding down a job for more than a few weeks. It could be that they are fried from substance abuse. It could be simple mental acuity and they are far enough down on the cognitive ability scale that they just don’t ‘get it’ no matter how many times you try to train them, yet they are not dysfunctional enough to qualify for life in a group home or assisted living. They could be immersed in a culture that has developed behavior patterns and attitudes that simply make them unfit for the workforce. The causes are many, the point is there is a segment of the population that at first glance should be productive, but simply doesn’t fit into the workforce, at least not long term.
The questions are what have we done about them in the past? What are we doing with them now, and what should we really do about them?
What have we done about them in the past?
Pre industrial age, this chronic underachiever class would be taken care of by their family or the church, or possibly institutionalized. Those organizations had close engagement and therefore were able to best manage each individual situation. Yes, there was no broad consistency. I’m sure some were treated poorly, and very few had problems that were understood so consequently they went without assistance where some clinical help could have given them a better life, but the system worked to help the population of underachievers. Then the era of the modern social safety net began.
Welfare, like many programs started with FDR during the great depression as part of the New Deal. The legislation offered “aid to families with dependent children” (AFDC). Like many other new deal programs, it got the government into the business it wasn’t previously engaged in. In this case, it started helping children with a parent who was dead, gone or otherwise incapacitated. Previously if those kids hadn’t been taken in by a generous family they would have been institutionalized. It was a block grant program, meaning the government gave funds to the states, which then redistributed the money under federal guidelines. There were attempts at revisions over the years, the biggest came in 1961 when it expanded its definition of a “deprived child” to include one who had an unemployed parent. It’s not a shock that even with small payments, many families did end up dependent on that program. This is where the system went off the rails. If you did start working a low wage job, you got less in benefit payments. If you don’t work (officially) but had babies, you got more money.
Now Imagine someone, usually a female, who didn’t have much success at working. It doesn’t matter why. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have cognitive skills or maybe they had limiting emotional issues. Maybe with drug use they just couldn’t get to work on time or would get into fights. This all could be aggravated by a bad economy and not being able to find jobs that fit or would be flexible enough to work with their special needs and abilities. If they stayed at home, didn’t get married, had babies, they would live the same as if they got married to a laborer or struggled in the workplace on their own with limited skills. What would you do? Hence the ‘welfare class’ came into being. I think the important point no one wants to discuss is that although the program’s may have grown the class, it didn’t create the class. The poor, disabled and unemployable always existed. Yes, the program was blamed for encouraging unwed mothers (it probably did), and for discouraging work (I’m sure it did this) but it didn’t create a class of human being that wasn’t quite fit for the modern workforce. As I said they always have existed. So we tried to fix the problem with welfare reform.
What We are doing now?
Effectively welfare reform put a time limit on modern welfare. The entire focus of the revised program was to get people back to work. Like all big changes to social policy it was a huge deal at the time. I distinctly remember a Rush Limbaugh rant from years ago where he was criticizing a homeless advocacy group for taking a bunch of new Republican house members and making them live a week like they were homeless and on welfare to prove that it wasn’t a great life. Limbaugh argued that it was a waste of time and the new congressmen should focus their efforts on getting people off welfare because everybody knew that welfare and homelessness was a horrible way to live. He parroted the argument that everybody they got off welfare would be motivated to go out and work and have a better life. That was the thinking of the day across the party lines and one, at the time, I agreed with wholeheartedly. Then the years happened to me and a new reality born from both professional and personal experience changed my perspective.
Back to welfare reform. The challenge was that the underachiever class needed something to get them by when they couldn’t work. Remember at first glance this class seems to be able to work, and some can eventually figure it out, but by and large most are always struggling in the work environment and many fall out entirely. There was an inherent demand for something to replace welfare. Over time, they, plus many others migrated to disability.
Disability, as it’s currently structured legally, is pretty open to interpretation. Greatly simplifying the federal program guidelines, you’re considered disabled if you have a medical condition that makes it impossible to work. Their is no hard and fast rule so this status becomes a judgment call made by health and wellness professionals such as doctors, mental health practitioners, and parts of the legal system. Practical reality means that anyone can be considered ‘disabled’ in some way and get a check. All they have to do is keep trying different approaches with different professionals until someone with authority says they can’t work. Not difficult to do with this population. It’s not surprising that in the last three decades disability has skyrocketed. This is true even with leveling factors such as medical advances and greater focus on anti-discrimination laws aimed at the disabled which should allow them more opportunities to work. At last count, fourteen million people get a permanent disability check from the government.
Ultimately what happened was that as welfare pushed people out, disability became the new welfare but without any incentive to get back to work. Once you are on disability your benefits continue in perpetuity and are good enough that it makes it difficult to risk getting off of them for the uncertain potential offered by modern employers. If the job doesn’t work out, it’s not easy to get back on disability, so people stay. As you had a welfare class develop, you now have a disability class. Like welfare it starts with someone who’s truly in need of the specific goals of the program but expanded to those not in need, the underachievers.
I’ve personally witnessed this in action. I have a friend who has a mother who’s just simply unstable. My friend’s mom, let’s call her ‘Grandma’, is a true bipolar manic depressive and prone to all manner of crazy episodes and fits. She’s in a mental health facility probably every two years on average. When she did work she could never stay on the job for more than six months due to her personality disorders. She’s a classic case of somebody who’s not really able to stay in the workforce with any longevity and consequently ultimately found herself on disability. Like the welfare days of old she doesn’t want to be alone in her reality. She wants to share what she thinks is a good thing. Enter my friend’s sister, we can call her ‘Auntie’. Auntie has a few kids of her own and is morbidly obese. Auntie has the skills and mental acuity for holding down a basic job. We’re talking something like fast food or retail assistant manager. It’s not enough to make her wealthy but it is enough to get her her own health insurance and a livable wage. The problem of course is that auntie is highly influenced by her mom and consequently used her weight as an excuse to get on disability. Now the household has two checks coming in every month.
When her grandson, my friend’s son, showed up to live with Grandma for a few years during his post high school “I don’t want any responsibilities and just want to hang out and hook up” period of his life, Grandma and Auntie tried to convince him that he was really mentally limited and desperately needed to be on disability too. I’m not making this up. Like the line from Pulp Fiction, my friend went medieval on her son’s you know what and yanked him out of there. Now he’s in school learning a trade which is good, but that’s just one person pulled from that trap. There is a whole population of others who haven’t been so lucky in similar situations.
What should we really be doing Part I: What won’t work
Even if it was possible (and I don’t think it has ever happened throughout history) dropping the program entirely won’t work. We would go back to to a world of homeless and institutionalized. I also don’t think we would see neighbors or many community churches pick up the slack. When I was a kid, neighbors would assist in the raising of the children. Neighbors could ‘punish’ a misbehaving neighborhood kid. It really was a village where everyone helped raise the next generation. That’s died. We live in in a world of litigiousness and government involvement. When I say government involvement, i’m not talking about some big scary organization of men in black suits. For practicality sake, government involvement for raising kids means that the neighbor who sees a problem and had implicit parental consent to correct it in generations past will now just call the school system or social services with their concerns, whether warranted or not, and create a ton of issues for the family. The issues exist because government is required to follow up on any notifications of child neglect or abuse. Most government organizations are not given the leeway to be creative, try different things and fail, especially not with kids. All social operations are therefore built with the law of CYA first and foremost. CYA means lots of work for the government people and the people they are investigating. Considering this more complex societal environment, guess how many people will take in the messed up kid or extended family member? My guess is a lot less than the turn of the last century.
I suspect that the end result of just ending the disability programs would be that we will have a class stuck in abject poverty similar to what you see in third world nations. If you’ve ever been to any of the really poor islands in the Caribbean or other parts of the world you’ll see what I mean. Shantytowns and families living in Driftwood housing with no plumbing or other utilities and covered in cobbled together roofs made from discarded materials like plastic panels or scavenged tin.
That’s not just bad for the people who live there, it’s bad for all of society. Crime goes through the roof and unsanitary conditions lead to suffering or intense pressure on the medical infrastructure which is a big problem unto itself. The bottom line is that in a society with enough wealth, you definitely need some kind of supportive system for the people who are just not fit for the workforce. This is why welfare existed in the first place.
There is a grey area in all of this
There is a gray area in all of this. The gray area is that different people are able to work at different points of their lives to different capacities. One perfect example as cited earlier is Auntie. She definitely can go back to work. She just needs the right support and motivation. Another good general example relates to child care for the lowest paid employees. If you can’t get to something like an assistant manager’s position that pays a few dollars more per hour than minimum, then It doesn’t make any sense for somebody making minimum wage at some frontline service job such as a convenience store to go to work and have to pay unsubsidized child care expenses. The child care system simply doesn’t meet the needs of these people. It’s way too expensive and would suck up the majority of wages of the low-income individual. Additionally most child care agencies aren’t flexible with 24/7 support yet many low paid jobs have non traditional hours. If you are low paid, you won’t work when you have kids, but when they are in school, work opportunities may open up.
What should we really be doing Part II: What may work
Maintaining disability or welfare won’t work. These systems are flawed. In practice they become traps into a low-quality poverty-stricken lifestyle. It’s not third world poverty but it definitely puts up a barrier to more aspirational lifestyles. Giving every single person an income won’t work either. The Guaranteed Basic Income isn’t such a bad idea except for one little thing. We can’t afford it, not if it’s done right with universal coverage for all citizens including medical. Giving everyone a check if they are working or not will create another variant of the welfare state. What you need is a universal system that everybody has access to but that gets worse when more people are on it. Then only the people who absolutely need to be on it will stay on it and everyone else will do their best to get out of it.
I think the solution would be unlimited unemployment with the caveat that it’s adjusted every month or every quarter based upon what’s coming into the fund, i.e. a true redistribution fund where everyone is reminded of that fact regularly. The numbers are simple to calculate. For example, if 100,000,000 workers are paying $100 a month into the system, that equals 10 billion dollars. If there are 15 million people out of work, then that’s a payment of about $667.00 a month per person. If the next month, there is a huge recession and 20 million people lose their jobs, then the remaining eight billion pot is split by 35 million (the initial 15 million plus the extra 20 million who just got laid off). Now the non-workers get $228.00 / month. Yes, I get that these are drastic numbers but i’m using them for the descriptive purposes. The reality is that developed economies don’t lose 20% of their workforce in a month, it will change little by little and people will have time to get used to the reduced and increased amounts respectively.
The best part about this program is that there is an inherent incentive on getting people to work. It’s not mandated with a built in carrot and stick, it’s self policing by design. The less people are working, the more their is a focus to get more of the population back on the job. The pressure isn’t from the threat of the money getting taken away after some arbitrary number of weeks, it’s the fact that the number goes down by itself and more and more have to share the pot. The more people work, the more money the chronically unemployable get monthly.
Let’s go back to the situation I described earlier. If mentally unhinged grandma has grandson move in, she doesn’t try and convince him that he can get on disability too. She’s smart enough to know that if he gets on unemployment she makes less. She tells him to get his behind back to work because she knows he can work where she really can’t. She may even push Auntie to stop eating to get her weight down so she can get a job and contribute. That’s the foundation of it, but their are some other elements that I think should be designed into the system.
It should be automatic. The current unemployment system includes self reporting of employment searches. Since this new unemployment scheme goes on in perpetuity, the reporting activity doesn’t need to happen. All we need to do is connect the unemployment system to the payroll tax system. This should be very easy to do, at least technically. No monthly payroll reported to the government tax agency triggers an unemployment payment. If the payroll tax department gets notification of a payroll disbursement for someone then there is no check or a limited unemployment check cut. As much as the GBI is a bad idea, this system adopts one of it’s prime directives, i.e. everyone gets it who needs it automatically. We can leave grey markets and working under the table for another conversation. In the end, if properly structured, the automated nature should minimize some of the ‘gaming the system’.
It should be flexible in times of real economic crisis. For example, If we did get into another great recession with massive unemployment, then we can just beef the fund up with a monthly stipend for a set period of time. For example, we could say we are going to add another $100 month to the monthly unemployment fund for the next year. The only thing that scares me about this is that it’s a slippery slope and if it’s not done judiciously and in very rare circumstances then it becomes standard policy to do it again and again.
There should be a slow ramp backing away from the unemployment check. For example, if you make $100, all of it doesn’t come off the unemployed/underemployed payment. Maybe we limit it to one quarter or so of the benefits. Going back to the original monthly $667 example, the person collecting who earned one hundred dollars would still get the unemployment check of $642.00, which is $25 less because they earned money. It’s obvious on a mathematical and emotional level that it’s good to give up $25 in benefits if you gross $100 in wages. The important point is that people having to choose between work or not working and collecting should always be incentivized to go to work because of the obvious and real world benefit.
Part of the reason this plan may work is that we are spending the money anyway via our current unemployment and disability systems. Much of the current system has become a trap right now. What this does is to build in a big door that makes it easy to enter and exit the system on an as needed basis with the emphasis on exiting at all times via peer pressure. Remember the grey area, much of this population is a revolving door and needs the safety net for their chronic unemployment as well as the incentive to want to keep trying to work.
Employers will love it because it reduces friction for bringing people on and taking them off the job. There will always be some sort of friction as it relates to other benefits offered but every time an employer has more flexibility in how they manage their workforce, the happier they are. I can see the HR managers in business with extreme seasonality dancing in their cubicles on the day this passes.
As an added bonus if people know that they won’t exhaust unemployment because of this structure they may be a bit more choosy on where to work. Consequently we may find employers more appreciative and flexible to the needs of this particular section of the labor market, at least when they have a chronic need for people. Employers will know they always have to compete against unemployment so they will act as they always do: they will figure out what they need to do to be competitive.
So what we have is a market based system where the supply is elastic to the demand (currently disability makes it inelastic) and where their is inherent pressure to have more people working who can work, yet good support for those who really can’t. Is it a perfect solution? Nope. Honestly, considering the variety of issues and challenges we all face individually, is there any solution that will work for everyone? Probably not. Is it better than what we currently have? I honestly think so, and that’s coming from a guy who has been an in-demand professional, a long term unemployed bum, and everything in between. I’ve also been heavily engaged in serving both employers and the population that makes up the chronic underachiever class. I know what i’m talking about, at least on a visceral level.
I invite you to punch holes in this theory. I’ll be happy to revise it again based on input. That’s the fun part about theories, they can always be tweaked or just trashed, just like social support programs.