With the launch of SOLAS, a new state agency combining job-finding, skills, and further education, I’m growing more and more suspicious that Ireland’s government is planning compulsory training for those on welfare. I have little objection to such schemes if they’re about equipping people with useful knowledge, preparing them for real jobs, making workers up-to-date and competitive.
However, I remember the 80s.
I remember Fás – like it was yesterday – and its predecessor agencies. I remember their much-ridiculed schemes. Training people to use telephones with the help of bananas. I get a horrible sense of déjà vu.
Useless education is counter-productive in so many ways. Being forced to attend tedious lessons when you would much sooner be doing something interesting is bad enough when you’re a child. To have it done to you as an adult is doubly as depressing, because it’s compounded with infantalisation. Any gain in dignity such schemes are supposed to convey needs to be weighed against that.
Another downside is that it takes people out of the black economy. Yes, I meant downside. To be blunt, the black economy is necessary. If everything was done by the book, very little would get done at all. People need services at a lower price than the legal economy can provide, particularly in times of recession. And, particularly in times of recession, those on unemployment assistance are often in a position to provide those services. This frees up what would otherwise be complete economic gridlock, where hardly anyone could afford to pay anyone to do anything.
But also in times of recession, the black economy can grow so much that it begins to compete noticeably with the legit one. I submit that that is no bad thing in the short term. But governments don’t like it of course, for the natural reason that the black economy is, by definition, ungoverned, and they are more susceptible to the protests of legitimate business than they perhaps should be if economic recovery were the only priority. So enforced education, and other timewasting exercises like makework schemes, function at least in part to tie people up and prevent them competing.
Back in the 80s, one solution mooted for this and other related problems such as the ‘poverty trap‘ was a national basic income, so that people on welfare would not be competing with those outside the system. Perhaps it’s time to look at such ideas again.