In the new reboot of Queer Eye, one of the case studies in season 1 was a gentleman by the name of Bobby Camp. Bobby lives with his wife and six kids in Georgia. Bobby’s biggest issue that the Fab Five tried to help him with was that he was struggling to function – or as Jonathan Van Ness (Mr Grooming) put it, he was “strugs to func.”
It’s a cute term, but why was Bobby doing it so tough? Because he was working 2 jobs to support his family, and consequently was living on 3-4 hours of sleep a night, and had been for quite some time.
I remember thinking (and tweeting) as I watched this episode that this lifestyle was just totally unsustainable. It’s not just about being “strugs to func” in the short term, it’s what working that hard does to you long term. It literally kills you (yes, this blog will includes references below.)
As I browsed twitter, I realised I wasn’t the only person worried about Bobby Camp’s health and longevity, and that many people were joining the same intellectual dots that I was: situations like Bobby’s are precisely why we should have social security, not just in terms of social security payments like New Start or the Family Tax Benefit, but also the broader welfare state apparatus, like universal health care, free education, protected wages that ensure a full time job is enough for a person and their family to survive, and so on.
The Fab Five did what they could to help the Camps get things together: Bobby the decor and home guy did his usual miracle worker routine and completely transformed their home into a much nicer space, and spent some time bonding with case study Bobby while planting some veggies in the garden (an activity to do with the kids, plus free food in the long run.) Jonathan (Grooming,) Tan (Wardrobe,) and Antoni (Food) took Bobby and the kids to Target to work on Bobby’s makeover and to find solutions for a time and cash poor big family. Karamo (Culture) introduced Bobby and his wife to a chore roster for the kids, and helped him plan a wedding reception reboot to make up for the disastrous original event.
They didn’t touch on the biggest problem: Bobby can’t keep working 2 jobs and only sleeping 3-4 hours a night. But the solutions to that problem are way beyond the scope of a reality tv show, even Queer Eye and its mission to make people happier.
Here’s the discussion they could have had on screen.
Working as much as Bobby Camp does will kill you
People need sleep and rest. It’s not just about the original Labour Movement’s motto of 8 hours work, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest. It’s about your health.
If you don’t get adequate sleep, the impact on your body is huge. Cardiovascular failure, strokes, diabetes, mental health issues, suicide – these are all attributable factors in the phenomenon of “death by work” or karoshi in Japan and China, where social pressure to work unsafe hours and achieve business success leads to people dropping dead at work. (Weller, 2016; Kuwahara et al, 2014; Lewis, 2016.) Kanai (2009) notes that there is a definite connection between changes to labour relations to facilitate greater labour flexibility (i.e. less secure employment, ‘lower labour costs’ – or in meaningful terms, lower wages and less hires, on casual or short term contracts rather than lengthy fixed term or permanent roles) and the increased rate of karoshi deaths.
Even in nations with less intense societal pressure to work unsafe hours, it is common to see people who ascribe to a “work hard, play hard” or “work hard now, rest later” mantra affected by heart attacks, strokes, mental illness and substance abuse (Seppala and Cameron, 2015.) Safety at work isn’t just about making sure people aren’t physically injured – it’s also about making sure that stress and pressure is reduced, and that people can actually get home to rest. We should not be living to work, but working to live. Insecure work and social stigma around perceived laziness if you’re not working unsafe hours ensures that people will work themselves to death – and this is not good for society or the economy.
This is why the situation in America, which is being increasingly replicated across the UK, Australia and beyond, is untenable. It is completely unreasonable that people have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet for a modest family – these are not people living with unreasonably lavish lifestyles. The minimum wage in Australia was once set on the basis that a full time (male) worker could support themselves and their family, on that one full time wage. They’d be able to buy a house, cover their living expenses, and allow their kids to look ahead to wider socioeconomic options than joining Pa in the factory or mine (Glover, 2015.) Somehow, somewhere, that idea has been lost in Australian society, and instead we have adopted the American idea that people in unskilled labour jobs apparently don’t deserve to be able to make ends meet? Who makes this judgement and why? How have we let ourselves be convinced that it’s ethically, morally, socially acceptable or economically sustainable for low income workers to be living in poverty even if they are working full time in multiple jobs???? (Patty, 2017.)
If you’re talking to a strident “people should pull ’emselves up by the bootstraps and make their own opportunity blah blah blah” person, just focus on the economic argument. People who earn low to moderate incomes will spend most of their wage in the local economy, on their rent or mortgage, groceries and so on (Jericho, 2018.) The retail and hospitality sector, the same business involved in the Business Council of Australia’s push to abolish penalty rates and job security, are now complaining of slow down as the workers who’ve had their wages cut now can’t afford to go shopping for non-essential items (funny that…) (Mulligan, 2017.)
It’s not enough for a person to be working in a job that is insecure and pays terribly. People everywhere deserved to be paid a living wage that ensures that they can meet the costs of living, and economic policies need to consider the social cost of living rather than the profits of businesses seeking to suck the money out of people’s security. And for those who can’t work, for whatever reason, there needs to be social security.
There is a right to social security
This shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but apparently… it is. But guess what neoliberals? THERE IS A HUMAN RIGHT TO SOCIAL SECURITY. It’s as old as international human rights law in the modern era. It’s right there in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
This was elaborated further upon in Article 25, detailing the adequate standard of living:
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) reiterates in Article 9 and 10 that social security is a core, fundamental right, and that:
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that:
2. Special protection should be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth. During such period working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits.
3. Special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons without any discrimination for reasons of parentage or other conditions. Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labour should be prohibited and punishable by law.
This right to social security is reiterated in other key human rights treaties, confirming that it must be universally accessible and not restricted on the basis of race (Article 5, Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination) or gender (Article 11, Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women,) and that children are also included in the right (Article 26, Convention on the Rights of the Child.)
The Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has provided further guidance on how the right to social security should be implemented in member states, in General Comment 19 (2007.) The Committee notes that “Social security, through its redistributive character, plays an important role in poverty reduction and alleviation, preventing social exclusion and promoting social inclusion.” The Comment also notes that insurance based schemes or private schemes are unlikely to provide the kind of universal social security, but can be relied upon by member states to show compliance with the ICESCR requirement for social security if “it conforms to the essential elements of the right.”
Despite the history of the right to social security, it is seen all to often as an option extra
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Committee) is concerned over the very low levels of access to social security with a large majority (about 80 per cent) of the global population currently lacking access to formal social security. Among these 80 per cent, 20 per cent live in extreme poverty
General Comment 19, 2007
The nine principle aspects of a social security system are identified in the General Comment as covering:
- health care – which must “provide adequate access to health services for all” (i.e. universal healthcare, which the USA refuses to adopt;)
- sickness – people who cannot work for extended periods of time due to illness must be provided with income, and those who have disabilities that prevent them from working must also be provided with a benefit to ensure they can survive;
- old age – retirement from work must be facilitated, and an income provided to older citizens who have no other form of income (i.e. self funded retirees living off investment dividends and payments;)
- unemployment – people should be able to engage in work in a full, productive and freely chosen manner, and where that is not possible for whatever reason, unemployment benefits are to be paid to “ensure adequate protection of the unemployed worker.” This should also be provided to people who are under employed, i.e. working part time or casually whose income does not provide sufficient income to survive;
- employment injury – workers injured in the course of their employment must be provided with “the costs and loss of earnings from the injury or morbid condition and the loss of support for spouses or dependents suffered as the result of the death of a breadwinner… in the form of access to health care and cash benefits to ensure income security.”
- family and child support – in order to realise the connected rights of Articles 9 and 10 of the Covenant, income support for families is necessary to ensure that parents or caregivers who cannot work while caring for children are provided with an income, and that cash or other benefits are provided to ensure the child/ren have equitable access to education, health and other services to ensure their full development;
- maternity – “working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits” – Article 10 is express and clear on this point. The General Comment notes that adequate and appropriate medical care for mothers and children is also included in this right.
- disability – the Committee has other comments that relate to the rights of people with a disability (General Comment 5, 1994,) but income support is to be provided to those who are unable to work due to their disability, and to those who provide care or support to a disabled person and as such, are also precluded from working.
- survivors and orphans – yes, the Covenant was drafted in a quite sexist time, when it was assumed that the father would be the breadwinner for the mother and children. Nevertheless, the language of the Covenant can be interpreted so that any parent who is the primary or sole source of income can be described as a ‘breadwinner’ and thus if they die, their surviving spouse and children, or orphans if both parents die, should have access to appropriate income support and other benefits that “should cover funeral costs, particularly in those States parties where funeral expenses are prohibitive.”
Is all of this expensive? Sure. But that’s why we pay taxes – so that if we fall into these categories at some stage in the future, we can also access social security.
The adequacy of social security must be assessed regularly, to make sure that social security benefits are keeping pace with the cost of living (General Comment 19, 2007.) Does this happen? Well….. no. And this is a major issue in Australia at present – even the Business Council of Australia agrees that the rate of Centrelink benefits in every category needs to be increased so that people can actually afford to live, and maybe have some discretionary money to spend in the retail sector (Dawson, 2018.) If you’re interested in this, head to ACOSS’ campaign page for Raise the Rate.
Universal basic income: a different way of looking at social security
The reason the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month, plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of okay for a season or two, and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. These were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and then wore until the soles were so thin he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots tha’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spend a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness.
Sir Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms
Pterry here manages to take the traditional neoliberal idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and asking the really obvious question: how exactly does one do that if you can’t afford the boots?!
The answer, in humane societies that understand that social security is a universal good as it ensures that people all have a basic level of means with which to cover the costs of living (and thus avoid stealing food to feed themselves, like my ancestors did before they found themselves sentenced to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land…) is that a social security payment will allow you, in theory, to buy the boots from which you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Only… it isn’t.
Traditionally, social security is considered to be emergency welfare, reserved for the poorest in society, people who are not working (due to lack of work, illness, etc.) and thus need some form of income in order to supply the basic necessities of life – shelter, food, healthcare, etc. But it doesn’t really go a lot further than that. Currently, a New Start welfare payment for Australian job seekers is, at maximum, $545.80, plus $134.80 Rent Assistance, $8.80 Energy Supplement, and $6.20 Pharmaceutical Allowance – a total of $695.60 per fortnight. I know this all too well, because it is my current income. It doesn’t go far – I pay $480 per fortnight in rent, $50 per fortnight to my phone/internet bill, and then try to spread the rest to cover my power bill, cat food/litter, my medications, my household supplies and food, and transport costs. There’s always cuts – I’ll avoid getting petrol one week so that I can pay something off my power bill. Borrow money from Mum (who herself is on the aged pension) or a friend so that I can get more than $20 worth of groceries.
There’s definitely no “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” – in the Vimes analogy, I’ve still got wet feet in cheap boots from KMart because I can’t afford nice ones that will last longer. Many people and organisations are campaigning for an improved welfare system, not just in Australia but everywhere. Or in places like America, where it’s just to have a welfare system – food stamps are nothing compared to universal healthcare, free education, and the rest of the things that we in welfare states take for granted.
The concept of “universal basic income” (UBI) is different to the traditional idea of welfare or social security. The concept of social security is that if you fall below a particular level of income (whether it’s working/earning less than X hours/X dollars per week, or not working at all) then you are eligible for government assistance. The concept of a universal basic income is that everyone in society is paid the same amount of money. It’s not dependent on need – it’s a universal payment to everyone. And this is where people struggle with the idea. Trials in Canada and Finland have been criticised by some and praised by others – generally, UBI trials are praised for the beneficial effect that non-conditional welfare has on unwaged people, by removing the humiliating requirements of attending Job Club, applying for jobs as a dishwasher when you have a law degree, and paying you a higher benefit than that provided to welfare recipients outside the UBI trial zone. Funnily enough, if you don’t make unwaged people jump through hoops and give them enough to live on, they are happier and take more risks in terms of what business or work ventures they consider entering (Chapman, 2017.) Not really rocket science…
But the criticisms of UBI are that it’s really expensive. There’s not really any way around that. It is an extremely expensive socioeconomic policy to implement. Imagine every person in Australia who could be in the labour market (i.e. all potential workers from 16-65, regardless of disability or education or income or background) receive $20,000 per annum as a regular fortnightly income stream. Instead of having people divided into New Start for job seekers, Austudy/ABStudy for students, Youth Allowance for young people, Disability Support Pension for those few who are still eligible for it, and so on, everyone got a UBI payment. But it wouldn’t just be those of us who are unable to work, either because there aren’t enough jobs in the labour market for us all, or because we have disabilities or other psychosocial impediments (like substance addiction, homelessness, etc) that prevent us from working for a while. It’s also Gina Rinehart, Malcolm Turnbull, every other harbourside millionaire or Toorak Tractor driving snob. Do rich people need a basic income payment? No. But under a true universal basic income, they would get one.
I have to admit, this is the biggest problem I have with a universal basic income. I like the theory, but I can’t shake the belief that social security should be means-tested, to ensure that only those who actually need help get it. I love all the discussion in UBI theory about unconditional welfare and adequate income paid to welfare recipients – but we can have those conversations about a simplified and adequate social security system, where there is one meaningful, living income benefit paid to all those who qualify for social security assistance, rather than various payments given to different categories according to arbitrarily defined policies of ‘deserving’ assistance, without going fully into a universal basic income system.
Now, there’s various ways that a truly universal UBI can be implemented. Trials in Toronto used a tax credit option for people who didn’t need/want the UBI payment – instead they could have the equivalent amount added to their tax-free threshold (Wilson & McCarthy, 2004.) Critics observe that the Finnish trials were never really about UBI, but about a different model of welfare assistance to the unemployed (Jauhiainen & Mäkinen, 2018.) This is the most interesting part of the UBI debate for me – how do we actually make it work? Do we commit to the universal aspect of UBI, and work out a way to provide everyone with basic income whether they need it or not, or do we just adopt the thinking of UBI into an improved means-tested welfare system, where those who need assistance receive a simple, adequate and unconditional payment?
Because this is where you end up in the decidedly interesting waters of neoliberal right wing support for universal basic income for all. You see, the likes of Silicon Valley millionaires and neoliberal thinktanks aren’t promoting UBI for the sake of supporting the welfare state. No.
They want UBI to replace the welfare state. (O’Hagan, 2017.) Their idea is that if everyone receives a basic income, then everyone can compete in the open market for services that are currently public funded (Wilson & McCarthy, 2004.) In simple terms, this vision for a UBI is not about an adequate payment to live on in a society that also has free education and healthcare, affordable public transport, subsidised childcare etc. Their vision instead is where everyone has a payment that they can then use at their discretion to pay for all of these public services.
Yes, you read that right. There are people who advocate for UBI on the basis that it would be ‘more efficient’ for the market to magically provide security of public infrastructure and services, by allowing everyone to pay their own money towards what they need. My criticism of this view ranges from bursts of outraged swearing that would make Father Jack of Craggy Isle blush, to a more calm response:
I refer to my above point about bootstraps and the lack of affordable boots in the Vimes Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness. If very rich people can afford to pay expensive school fees and private hospital fees, where is the incentive for profit-focused businesses to ensure that people whose only income is UBI can still access these necessary services??? The idea that a UBI can replace all forms of publicly subsidised services and infrastructure is the kind of utter nonsense that privileged rich twonks who have never had to rely on only public services – they’ve always had a car or two, so they’ve not had to rely on public transport. They can always cover the cost of tolls, so don’t understand why people might take a longer, less direct route to avoid paying tolls. They went to elite private schools, and can’t imagine why parents might value the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of the public education system (which, FYI, I went through – and still became a ‘privileged’ lawyer with two masters degrees, a graduate diploma and a double bachelors…)
The idea that you can ‘simply’ replace the entire welfare state apparatus with one universal basic income payment, and that it would somehow be cheaper for taxpayers and more efficient in delivering outcomes is just ABSURD. Public services don’t turn profits. The motivation of universal healthcare is ensuring public health outcomes, not pharmaceutical and hospital profits. Teachers are worried about ensuring their students learn and develop to their fullest potential, not whether they can maximise the profit from the student’s parents. And so on… Simply put, there’s no potential profit in public services, and this is why privatised bastardised public-private partnership enterprises have failed so dismally in just about every sector of public services in Australia. The most glaring example at present being the ever growing cost of electricity and gas – we were assured that costs would reduce when there was a market of competitive private firms providing our power but… nah. The opposite has happened (Jericho, 2017.)
How could various forms of welfare help Bobby Camp and his family?
Something that was clear from the discussions on twitter about this episode was how starkly the problems of the Camps brought into focus America’s serious problems with providing social services to its citizens.
In Australia, Bobby’s equivalent would have his work conditions protected by an award, which would set a minimum wage for his profession and other labour rights conditions. When his wife and kids needed medical attention, they’d be able to go to doctors whose services are partially or fully covered by Medicare, and access cheap prescription medications thanks to the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (which makes all meds about AU$6 per script – an absolutely lifesaver when you have to take daily medication and you’re poor!) They wouldn’t have debts from giving birth in hospitals or whatever other health issues the episode alluded to but didn’t explore in depth. The Camps would also be able to access parenting-specific government benefits, such as the Parenting Payment (for parents who undertake primary care, staying at home to care for the kids,) the Family Tax Benefit, and childcare subsidies. Plus there are subsidies and payments for the working poor – Bobby’s income for his family might be such that his partner may be eligible for various Centrelink payments or subsidies as well, which would help bolster the family’s finances. All up, Bobby wouldn’t have to work two jobs and kill himself from a lack of adequate sleep just to get by.
What this episode of Queer Eye showed so starkly for international viewers was just how ridiculously bad things are for people living in American society. Voters have been taught to fear socioeconomic policies that would improve their lives beyond measure. It’s painful.
Only the hardest of right wingers detest the idea of social security. The vast bulk of society is generally OK with the idea that there should be some kind of safety net there – aged pensions, job seeker payments, student payments, disability pensions, etc. Where people disagree is on the amount paid and the conditions imposed to be able to receive it, and the never-ending moralistic debate about who “deserves” welfare that has been fuelled by neoliberal governments who want us to hate welfare recipients so that they can slowly dismantle the welfare state system and turn us into another America.
But Australians don’t want to be America. We don’t want to be like Bobby Camp: a strugs to func full time employee who has to work nights stacking shelves at the supermarket just to put food on the table.
An Australian Bobby Camp would look very different. He’d be paid award wages in his daytime job. His wife would be eligible for parenting payments. They wouldn’t have debts from healthcare, as we have the Medicare system which covers most health issues (and as far as could be gauged from the Queer Eye episode, there was nothing unusual about the Camps’ health issues that wouldn’t be funded under maternity and paediatric Medicare rebates, as far as I could tell.) Whatever they might have had to pay ‘out of pocket’ between the full cost of the service and the Medicare rebate, it wouldn’t have been so much as to require a full time worker on an award wage to have to pick up a second job working nights. Aussie Bobby would be able to get his full 8 hours sleep (subject to the demands of toddlers and babies!) and be far less “strugs to func” beyond the norm for a parent of that many kids.
Social security or welfare payments are a right – and like all public services, they are the counterpoint to the responsibility of paying taxes. The social contract that we have between citizens and State is that we forego some of our individual liberties (like being able to do whatever we want, even if that means killing each other,) for the security of being governed in a civilised society – and this is not a revolutionary, radical idea, but something as old and integral to the liberal democratic system as the works of Thomas Hobbes. Governments have a responsibility to consider more than just the number crunching when it comes to economic policies – they must also consider the social impact that these economic policies will have (Glover, 2015.)
Whether we reform our welfare system to provide an adequate payment that actually lives up to the expectations of international human rights law, or look at the radically different idea of a universal basic income, we have to change something. Neoliberalism has eaten itself and proven to be a massive con, and voters are starting to wake up to this. People are no longer persuaded by rich politicians telling us that if we privatise everything our lives will be better “because the market will even out” – because in every market, from our daily groceries to our electricity to our trains, it just hasn’t. Also, the austerity measures imposed by governments in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 have made people reconsider their complacency around labour rights and industrial relations. While union membership is still at its lowest in decades, there is more drive and interest in union calls for a fairer system for workers – the Change The System message is resonating across Australia.
Could all of this have been discussed in a reality tv show focused on making people (both the participants and the viewers) feel good, all warm and fuzzy? Probably not, although based on his podcasts and tweets, I have absolutely no doubt that Jonathan Van Ness would deliver a fantastic lecture to his makeover clients on the benefits of a fair and equitable society. Similarly, I think Karamo Brown, Mr Culture/Counselling, would be good to discuss these issues in an appropriate for the reality tv format manner that educates viewers about better options for socioeconomic policies in America and beyond, and I was kind of hoping that Tan France, Mr Fashion, who is British, could have commented at some stage while learning about the Camps that “how do you end up in debt just for having a baby in a hospital? Do you not have the NHS??” (which he would know, as someone who has resided in America for some years, that they don’t, but you could play up the clash of cultural expectations for healthcare a bit for tv!)
They could have done it. But it was probably way beyond the scope of the Queer Eye brief, and I’m not sure how it would have gone down with American viewers.
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