The Social Welfare Pilot Scheme for Artists
So the government has announced a new pilot scheme that “allows” artists to be self-employed and claim social welfare. Of course, this is a pilot scheme and only applies to visual artists (subject to verification by the VAI) and writers (subject to verification by The Irish Writers Centre). For the twelve month duration of the scheme performing artists will not be eligible, because as we all know they’re not really artists at all. (There’s an interesting facebook thread on this here led by Declan Gorman)
According to the Irish Times report on the scheme the artist will have to be registered as self-employed with the Revenue Commissioners and be able to demonstrate at least 50 per cent of their income has been derived from their art in the preceding year to be eligible.
“Once a person has been classified as a self-employed artist on the DSP system they would not be subject to activation process for at least a year.
The conditions associated with jobseeker’s allowance will continue to apply, as they do for all other claimants. Artists will have to prove that they are genuinely seeking other work, taking part in courses or classes like CV preparation, job-searching or referral to JobPath, Tús and Jobs Clubs, for example”.
I want you to think about that last phrase for a moment: “Artists will have to prove that they are genuine9ly seeking other work, taking part in courses or classes like CV preparation, job-searching or referral to JobPath, Tús and Jobs Clubs, for example”.
Its time we got something out in the open, so here it is:
THERE ARE NO JOBS FOR ARTISTS. NONE.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman}
There are commissions, there are short-term contracts, and in some cases there is rent in the form of copyright payments (very difficult for artists in this county to access despite their legal entitlement to it) BUT THERE ARE NO JOBS!
If we don’t understand and accept this then the Welfare Pilot will fail. All this scheme does is allow visual artists and writers to receive JA for a total of twelve months without being “activated”. So, in other words the artist on this scheme has twelve months to secure sufficient commissions, contracts and royalty payments to support them in their life and work for the foreseeable future. If they don’t do this they will be “activated” – sent for work in whatever opening comes along. Or to put it another way you have twelve months to make a success of yourself! Oh, and during that twelve months you’d better be able to prove that you’re actively “looking for work” either by going for interviews or applying for grants and commissions.
Except that’s not how the creative mind or the creative market works. It is possible to write and paint for an entire year and produce nothing of value or quality. It can take twenty years and more for an artist to be “successful”, but under this scheme you have one year to generate sufficient grants, commissions and royalties to sustain you into the forseeable future because THERE ARE NO JOBS FOR ARTISTS. The probability of any artist building anything resembling an economically sustainable career in a twelve month period is tiny.
Living in the 50s still
However, the design of this pilot scheme, or to be exact the assumptions underlying it, reveal some very interesting misunderstandings at the heart of our government and its bureaucracy. We could say that it’s designed to fail – and that could well be true – but what’s more interesting is that it reveals a terrifying absence of understanding about the artists relationship to income, work, and wealth and consequently an absence of understanding about the realities of the new economy. In effect what this scheme reveals is that our politicians and bureaucracy are living in the ’50s.
Let me explain. Our politicians and bureaucracy are obsessed with jobs. Votes and political careers depend on jobs. Low corporate tax rates and tax avoidance policies are justified on the basis of jobs created. Tourism, foreign and economic policy, taxation, education are all based on the promise of jobs.
Or to be exact, on the idea of a job for life. The permanent and pensionable job. It’s why the corporate tax rate is so low and tax evaders not pursued: the belief that if there are enough jobs then the combination of direct tax, employers PRSI and VAT on consumer goods will create an adequate tax base. And in the good ‘ol days when people had jobs for life, and income went up in line with the cost of living, and tax was genuinely progressive, it was possible to capture a substantial tax base.
But in a casualised, zero hour world where real wages have stagnated since the late 1970s, where tasks can be outsourced and corporations can move to the cheapest labour point, where production costs are pushed down to allow a greater short term return, where pensions and health have been individualised and social infrastructure is a commodity then the value of PRSI, income tax and VAT on consumer goods declines in real terms. Put simply when personal income stagnates, and job security vanishes then the tax revenue goes down in real terms – but the social costs increase. It’s why the current government is desperately trying to sell off every available national asset from water to distressed mortgages.
In short they’re trying to manage a 21st century economy with mid 20th century economic models. And so they desperately chase job creation in an increasingly jobless world (Lets not forget that solicitors and doctors are losing ground to technology). They assume that the whole point of their efforts is to create lasting employment – which is now impossible.
Not only are there no jobs for artists, pretty soon there’ll be no jobs for anybody else – not in the traditional sense. In more ways than one, we’re all artists now.
And that’s why the Artists Welfare Scheme will fail: it doesn’t understand the nature of creative work or the creative market, and it’s built on the assumption that job creation – or to be more precise – full-time employment is the end point of all political action.
Wealth not Income
So what would a workable “welfare” model for artists look like? It would look like a universal basic income. It would be sufficient to meet the basic needs of somewhere to live, food to eat, education if needed and healthcare. It would allow for meaningful engagement with the community and the society. It would vary depending on the specific needs of the individual. (In the case of the artist we have to ask how they are to purchase the required materials for their craft on €180 per week.) It would remain in place regardless of the occasional spikes in income common to many artists, and it would ensure that the artists copyright is protected and pursued to allow the artist the possibility of creating wealth. It would allow the artist access to private investment via structured tax relief on cultural investment also scaled to the means of the investor. This basic income would be understood as a vital part of a wider ecosystem designed to support the creation of wealth and built on the understanding that an artistic career can take 20 – 30 years before it creates any meaningful wealth. This wealth would be considered a taxable income.
The most basic flaw in the Welfare model is that it is focused on the individual and not on the community or the wider ecosystem. What does this mean? If you support a hundred artists or a thousand artists with such a universal basic income model you don’t need all of them to “succeed” financially, you only need a couple of them to become stars, to generate the kind of wealth that when taxed repays the investment in the system that allowed them to succeed.
There have never been jobs for Artists. There are fewer and fewer jobs – in the traditional sense – for everybody else. It’s time to stop thinking about job creation and tax on jobs. Its time to understand the idea of wealth creation and the taxation of wealth.
So, create a system that allows artists to create and benefit from wealth in all its forms, and stop pretending that they are employable.