This week I want to look at poverty as it can be related if not considered a result of unemployment and/or underemployment. Many a times we acknowledge the presence of both “the absence of work” and poverty with little emphasizes on how the latter can be worsened by the presence of the former. I will discuss these relationships with a focus on three areas that I believe can be identified when we talk of “the absence of work” or to put it differently “when work disappears”. These areas are; when we cannot get work because we do not have the basic skills, competencies and qualifications to get a job of any value to our livelihood; when we do have the basic skills competencies and qualifications but the labour market and related socio-economic and political systems cannot offer us employment and we end up either unemployed or underemployed; and lastly, when age, sickness and other similar circumstances render us no longer productive, despite the skills and qualifications we may hold and the labour market simply shafts us into retirement homes (if we have any) and we become part timers or simply become a burden to other societal institutions.
First, “work disappears” when we are unable to get the very basic jobs because we do not have the basic requirements for such jobs. We do not have these basic requirements because as products of our own social structural networks that define our place and positions within the parameters of the set mutually dependent institutions of our polity, economic, family and education systems, we have our destiny imprinted in the social relationships of these societal realities. It is for this reason that our literacy rates, school enrollments at various levels and overall national commitment to education or at least basic education becomes of fundamental importance. The official figures on these matters seem to suggest that we are not doing very badly and one would expect that relatively we should have a small number of this category of people. Small as the number maybe though, we are challenged to find solutions to alleviating this occurrence because within that number would be associated poverty prevalence scenes and I want to argue that this is normally where ugly scenes of devasted bodies and souls are found. This in short, is the preferred home of extreme poverty incidents. As a country, we ought to be concerned because the values, attitudes, habits and life styles that emerge out of these circumstances are not the positive social psychological variables that would contribute meaningfully to efforts towards dealing with poverty.
A visit to the lands, cattle posts, farms, shebeens and depots of various brews in both villages and towns would easily gives us the picture. I suspect even the records of crimes committed and who commits them, as well as prison inmates may be of relevance to this issue. When work disappears at this level we end up been cheap labour of all types and kinds, susceptible to a heavy dose of exploitation by not industries & companies alone but our own government, communities, villages, relatives and dare I say parents.
Secondly, “work disappears” when even our educational qualifications and basic skills cannot get us employment to reward our labour skills. At this level we will either be unemployed and spend most of our times spending somebody’s resources to move from place to place and location to the other trying to market ourselves, or we will be underemployed because we can only get opportunities we are over qualified for and therefore resultantly also get underpaid. If this later scenario gets institutionalized in the labour market, we will as well be pushing those less qualified than us further down to either be also underemployed or unemployed. When this happens we increase both relative and absolute poverty. If as a country we cannot adequately mitigate against these realities we will fuel the further persistence of what some have called economic marginality and therefore increasingly drift into a culture of economic displacement of able and potentially productive bodies into social and economic liabilities.
Lastly, “work disappears” when we reach our retirement ages and the economic system simply “dumps” us into the unemployed category (you may choose to disagree with this categorization). At this level I am referring to those whose bodies and mental capacities have become absolute and sometimes even senile and those who are unlucky to be forced to retire even when they can still be productive for a good number of their later engagement as workers of some sort. Given the nature of our social structural networks and their relational arrangement, when we reach this stage we would have culturised certain values, attitudes, habits and lifestyles (both positive and negative).
These patterns of behavior developed overtime as a function of our entrenched relationships with the polity, economy, family and societal institutions, will determine whether we can remain above the poverty datum line or we are slowly going to be an addition to the poverty statistics. I am sure the expectation by most is that this group has no reason to be a poverty statistic but you and I know the reality says otherwise and, whilst I may not go into details of why this is so, it is simply crucial that we reflect on why this number should be of concern to us as a nation. When work disappears at any of these three levels, we are bound to feel the burden of people relegated into the various levels and types of poverty and it requires our refocusing to identify the specifics of each of these groups and develop appropriate policy reactions.
It is a challenge we have to embody and face up to in any measures against poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and/or underemployment and more importantly how we define and understand the relational links between the former and the rest of the other aspects. What is clear to me is that poverty as a function of many other complex factors is also intrinsically linked and resultant from the “disappearing of work” at any of the three levels identified above.