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Keeping Screwups out of the Workforce

Tony was living on the same floor in my apartment building. He was a small, scruffy man who was overly friendly, not scared to talk to anyone. He was probably the only person in the building that I exchanged small talk on a regular basis. I will give him credit for this trait.

Tony was always borrowing money from me. Twenty dollars here, $50 there. He always paid me back within a week.

According to my landlord, Tony was usually a few days late with his rent payment. He happily paid the $20 late payment charge. Tony took pride in being able to solve his cash flow problems.

More than a few times, there was alcohol on Tony’s breath. And there were a couple of times when he was drunk. In the first year, he did invite me to his apartment for a drink. But that activity was half a lifetime away for me.

Tony was seldom unemployed. In the four years he was living in my apartment building, he held a variety of jobs: beef plant worker, construction labor, delivery driver, forklift operator, repairman, tire shop, pipeline worker. But he never held on to a job for very long: maybe four months at most. He always had a good reason why he had to “quit” his last job.

Tony’s outgoing nature landed him another job quite quickly. But one year, he managed to put together enough employment hours to qualify for unemployment insurance. He stayed on that social program for the entire 12 months of eligibility. He supplemented his income with “day work for cash” at construction sites, moving material from one spot to another. Tony was quite proud that he could cheat the government: he was supposed to report his cash earnings, but he knew the government would not be able to connect his cash work to reduce his unemployment benefits.

Tony had a driver’s license, but he never owned a vehicle. He either got fellow workers to pick him up or he used his bicycle. Not having a vehicle in a town makes employment more challenging.

After about a year of being around Tony, I concluded that Tony was a screw-up in the workplace. He was not a good employee for most jobs. Another three years of living next to Tony only confirmed my suspicions. Poor workmanship, wrecked equipment, and ruffled customers probably followed Tony from workplace to workplace.

I felt sorry for the companies that hired Tony. To advertise, interview, and train new employees, there is an expense that must be incurred. I kind of doubt that these employers recovered enough profits from Tony’s efforts to pay for these costs and his eventual mistakes. The employer would have been better off leaving the position vacant than having Tony fill it.

I felt sorry for the prospective employees who lost the competition for the job Tony took. Tony had charisma to ace an interview; they did not. They would have made better employees.

Granted, the places of Tony’s employment had a high turnover rate. Their business model accepted employee turnover as part of their operations. Still, getting a year or two out of an employee is much better for the economy than one to four months.

Universal Basic Income (UBI)

Many advantages of UBI are well laid out. But I see one advantage that the UBI advocates fail to see:

A UBI will keep screwups like Tony out of the workplace. Businesses will save lots of money because they don’t have to replace workers like Tony as often. Recruitment costs will go down.

If Tony was on a UBI, his basic needs would be met. Rent, food, alcohol, TV, cellphone: that’s all Tony seemed to want out of life.

Tony would be working for day cash on construction sites to supplement his UBI income. If his short-term employer liked Tony’s labor for the day, the employer would call Tony the next time a day laborer was needed. And being on UBI, Tony would be available for these employers when they needed him — instead of on a job where he is likely to get fired. In other words, he is more useful to society in this way. Knowing that his labor had value would be good for Tony’s psyche.

In fact, a UBI would indirectly create a better mechanism for screwups like Tony to get this day-by-day work. Many screwups can hold things together for a few days. The employer gets value for this short-term effort.

And for those libertarian thinkers out there, a UBI would give people like Tony a lot more freedom to make better life decisions. With more life options and deciding things for themselves, their thinking will become more positive.

By thinking more positive and not having so much life stress around him, Tony just might be in a better frame of mind to deal with some of his mental health issues.

And putting Tony on a government UBI would probably be cheaper than all those recruitment and training costs businesses have to incur when hiring people like Tony — and later paying for his too many mistakes.

With UBI, some of these screwups would not be turning to petty crime to get their basic needs met. And that crime has big costs for society.

Let’s just admit some people just cannot handle the rigors of a 40-hour work week or consistently follow instructions to do a job well. A UBI will be the better investment society can make for them. Tony need not apply for a UBI or prove he needs it. It is just there — for everyone.

Published on Medium 2022

Negative Welfare

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