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Is the future of America a crummy service job stamping on a human face, forever?

Here's your future.
Here's your future.
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton don't agree on much, but they both strongly believe more Americans should be working in low-wage, unpleasant jobs.

Paul devoted a large chunk of his announcement speech Tuesday to celebrating the "dignity of work," endorsing the notion that work is a force that gives us meaning, rather than a means by which to stay alive. "Self-esteem can't be given; it must be earned," he declared. "Work is not punishment; work is the reward."

Clinton is less blunt, but her campaign is expected to place a heavy emphasis on policies to get women into the workforce and encourage two-earner families, such as child care subsidies or paid parental leave.

The implication is clear: there are people, particularly women, who aren't working but should be, and the government should be doing all it can to push them to take jobs.

These ideas address real problems: the labor market is rife with gender inequities, and efforts to make the choice to work as viable for women as it is for men are admirable and necessary. So are programs to help people living in concentrated poverty with little or no connection to the formal labor market find employment. And the US still needs to create 4 million jobs to fully recover from the recession.

But while there are problems to be solved, there's also a reality to be acknowledged. America is a very, very rich society. The richest the world has ever known. For many Americans — particularly Americans with children — working a low-wage, physical job with little job security and unpredictable hours is a deeply unpleasant way to spend your life. Maybe more work isn't always the answer.

Doing more for less

For many Americans, the central problem here isn't work. It's wages. You can see it in this chart:

epi compensation wages

(Economic Policy Institute)

What Paul and Clinton are essentially proposing is to improve living standards by getting people to work more in low-wage jobs. Child care subsidies increase parents' incomes like any transfer program, but the real point is to encourage working mothers who can't afford child care to stay in the labor force, or spur mothers who've dropped out to reenter. That's the significant gain to the living standards from child care subsidies, and it's produced not by making work pay more, but by making people work more, period.

For people who are involuntarily out of the workforce because they can't afford child care, that's great. If they want to work, they should work. But let's not lose sight of the fact that, for many people, work is the worst.

In recent decades, the job market has polarized. Moderately skilled professions — like manufacturing and clerical work — have been increasingly automated out of existence, and in their place are highly skilled and well compensated jobs at the top of the income distribution, and low-skilled, poorly paid, erratically scheduled jobs at the bottom. Tackling wage stagnation through child care basically tells the latter group, "We're going to make it easier to support your family by working long, miserable hours for low pay at the shitty service job you hate." That's progress of a sort. But only of a sort.

Paul's exact agenda for encouraging work is vaguer, but he's expressed an interest in pulling disabled people into the workforce. Again, if disabled people want to work, they should work, and there are reasonable proposals for enabling that. But a lot of them just can't. Getting disability insurance is really difficult, and it's likelier that people who need it are left out than that people getting it don't need it. Indeed, most failed applicants don't work after they apply:

(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

Clinton's plan is to boost living standards by making it easier for able-bodied people to do miserable work. Paul's is to force people who don't feel physically or mentally capable of working to do so anyway in order to survive.

Neither of these is an actual solution to the problem of low wages or shitty jobs. And both reflect a worldview in which hard work and industry are the prime virtues, and other pursuits — parenting, volunteering, hobbies, time with friends — are luxuries to be earned through constant striving. It's a bleak vision, and if we are to recognize that there's more to life than constant toil, then we need to at least consider other answers.

What is to be done?

Just when I thought I was out… Shutterstock

Three hours on the laptop, five hours staring at the lake. (Shutterstock)

There is a radically different approach to the problem of terrible, unpleasant jobs in an extremely rich society, but few in politics dare touch it. It's called a basic income. Instead of giving work-contingent aid or transfers like child care meant to encourage work, just give people money — enough to put them above the poverty line.

The first-order benefit of this is obvious: it eliminates poverty, and counteracts wage stagnation by hugely supplementing the incomes of working families.

But the second-order benefit would be to remove the biggest tools in employers' bargaining arsenals: the threat of starvation. Currently, if you don't work, aren't in a household with someone who works, and don't qualify for substantial government aid, it's difficult if not impossible to stay alive. That gives employers tremendous power. When a worker's alternative to taking a minimum-wage job is dying in the street, taking a minimum-wage job starts to look like a good deal.

A basic income would eliminate that danger. Not working would mean a lower standard of living, sure, but not an impossibly low one. Employers would have to have a better pitch than "You need to do this to not die." And that better pitch, in all likelihood, will take the form of higher wages, more compensation, and more humane work schedules.

Critics of a basic income say it disincentivizes work. But this is exactly the point. It removes an implicit incentive to work and forces employers to provide one of their own, helping employees in the process. And in the long run, it enables a transition to a world of less work and greater leisure. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that rich countries of the future would use their wealth to reduce working hours — he predicted a three-hour workday — and enjoy their time off. That hasn't happened yet. But it could.