Accepted wisdom tells us that we can’t afford to be a decent society because taxing most people a bit more would be disastrous. This is what is called austerity, which means that the richest countries in the world must pretend to be poor, because higher taxation will scare away the wealth junkies we need to invest in our economies. Let’s take one example of what this means: the work of community nurses and carers who look after people in their own homes or in residential facilities.
These are not good jobs. In Scotland few of them will be paid more than £15,000 a year, or around £7 per hour. Many will not be paid extra for working unsocial hours, or in the case of home carers, for time spent travelling from patient to patient. These are people whose compassion and integrity are essential to the welfare of very vulnerable patients. They undertake the most intimate kinds of physical care while trying to preserve the dignity of their patients, listening to their concerns and responding to their desire for companionship. In many cases they do these things while subject to an instruction limiting the time they can spend with any one patient.
The work force is overwhelmingly female although the number of male employees is increasing. Often, due to their decency and inventiveness, patients receive good care most of the time, but sometimes the system is suddenly shown to be abusive or to have collapsed completely. This is not surprising given the sheer difficulty of the tasks, the relative lack of training and support, and the very modest remuneration. These are problems that affect both publically and privately funded providers. There may be -I’m told there are- very expensive agencies that provide a better class of care for their wealthy patients, but the more expensive providers I have seen are neither paying staff better not offering significantly superior care.
In our economy those to whom we entrust our frailest dear ones in their time of greatest need are poorly paid and poorly regarded as a profession.
This is not an accident. These workers do not contribute to economic growth. Their specific sort of caring does not have the apparent glamour of hospital medicine. They require public or private funding for which there is keen competition. And they remind citizens of the uncomfortable fact that our chosen way of life involves the neglect of our disabled, frail, demented, loved ones of all ages.
Jesus taught that when the Humane Ruler (The Son of Man) came to earth, he would judge nations by how well they had cared for the least important and most vulnerable citizens. Whatever they provided or failed to provide for them, they provided or failed to provide for him.
The truth is that for the price of one fish supper a week, (£5) we could solve this and many other problems in out health provision. Now of course there are people, including many care workers who will not be able to afford this. But there are plenty of us who can. But let’s take it step by step. Let’s ask the government to work out the cost of paying care workers £15 per hour, and to introduce a ring-fenced care tax that makes this possible. Of course there are many other priorities for improvement in our nation, but taking just this one and dealing with it, might be a declaration that as citizens we want our economic decisions to reflect our moral and political priorities; that indeed we want to put human necessity before what is claimed to be economic necessity.
It might be that just one such decision would restore our politicians’ faith in the purpose that drew most of them into office in the first place: the possibility of improving the lives of their fellow citizens; and the confidence of the electorate that we can achieve more together than we can as individual competing consumers. I am not a politician and would probably be a very bad one, but I reckon that the slogan, “A FISH SUPPER FOR SCOTLAND!” might awaken the citizenry to the economic power that they possess.