Basic income – why we need it but will we get it?

For some years, I have been following the global debate about the adoption of universal basic income (UBI) while researching and writing about the changing face of employment – and the changing face of social welfare – as reflected in the content of this website. My doctoral research focussed on employment insecurity and the difficulties many people face in the unpredictable world of work and welfare. The Ken Loach film set in the UK, I, Daniel Blake, captures very well the awful situation of anyone who finds they are in need of social support. I have interviewed people in broadly similar circumstances.

The attraction of a universal basic income is that it institutionalises the right of all citizens to a non-conditional income. It pays this income to everyone and then this is clawed back into general revenues through taxation, as per present personal taxation arrangements, so lower income earners are the core beneficiaries. It would be broadly paid for by replacing current welfare payments. It counteracts the effects of growing job insecurity and the impossible conditionality of the contemporary welfare system given that job security is no longer a given.  Another key rationale for a UBI is that so many jobs will be lost through digitilisation, automation and robotics which will greatly increase productivity and outputs but leave human beings out in the cold and unable to buy anything if they do not have an income. At this point in the dystopian trajectories of both work and welfare, a UBI would constitute a major step forward in reinstating basic human rights to dignity and security.

Basic income was a major topic of discussion at the OECD Forum I attended in Paris in June.  Various high profile experts gave their support for this policy. However, the OECD itself has a number of reservations as set out in its briefing paper released in May.   The IMF has countenanced UBI as a policy option to alleviate poverty and inequality but questions its financial viability. I receive a daily update from the Universal Basic Income Europe group with various articles about developments on this issue including the experiments in train in various parts of the world. I also keep up with the Basic Income Earth Network and read any number of papers and articles on the topic. I have recently read Guy Standing’s new book, Basic Income: And How We Can Make it Happenwhich puts forward the most compelling case for a UBI that I have read to date.

Professor Standing argues the case for UBI at many levels – restoring human rights, reducing poverty and inequality, and stimulating economic growth. He discusses the positive outcomes from experiments that have been conducted in different settings around the world. One of the most important of these outcomes is that a UBI actually stimulates people in going forward in their lives through work and employment such as starting a business. The book has answered many of my own doubts and questions about a UBI but some not entirely.

In my own research, much job insecurity was created by government austerity measures which affected anyone in public sector employment, especially women. This has also had flow on effects to private sector employment.  One outstanding priority for government would be to adequately fund core sectors of public sector employment so that its workers could have job security, and the private sector would be squeezed to follow suit. A basic income can’t substitute for an income from a decent job which everyone should be able to obtain. There is also a school of thought that a publicly funded “job guarantee” system would be better than a UBI in tackling inequality and also restoring opportunity.

In reflecting on the people I interviewed for my doctoral research, what they needed most was a secure job of their choosing with sufficient hours of work and income. A distressing article published in the Conversation recently also shows the importance of a good job for older women facing homelessness. Yes, better provision of social housing would help in Australia’s disgracefully unaffordable housing market but they needed that along with a good job. They certainly needed a well paying secure job to exit from homelessness in their current situation.

The late Anthony Atkinson, in his 2015 book Inequality: What can be Done, argues for a “participation income” which is a universal payment of sorts but connected to “making a social contribution” (p. 219) defined as employment or self-employment, caring, education, training, job search or voluntary work with exclusions for people with an illness or disability. I agree with Guy Standing that this would perpetuate the current problems of conditionality for income support with its intrusive monitoring and surveillance, especially difficult in the world of insecure work, and would benefit most those already doing well in full time jobs.

My other major concern with a UBI is about regaining a focus on restoring opportunity across social classes. Could there be a scenario whereby a portion of the population is effectively discarded with a UBI as a token means of (very) basic support while other portions easily continue their wealth and income accumulation? This may be especially an issue for regional and remote communities. In this way there may also be a danger that there is less social mobility and moreover, a  bitter divide consolidated between workers and non-workers stemming back to old puritan ‘work ethic’ values regardless of how much digitalisation, automation and robots might be wiping out vast portions of jobs.

After reading Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, I wondered whether the basic income would be a salve for the type of disenfranchised and dysfunctional rust belt community in the US midwest that he grew up in and which still exists today. Would the basic income provide the type of impetus for kick starting communities that is reported in some parts of the world or would it just consolidate the social problems reported in the book such as violence, drug addiction, family breakdown? Vance himself had a negative take on the role of social welfare in these communities evoking a picture of laziness and moral turpitude on the part of many of their residents which social welfare, often just food stamps, enabled.

It is hard to see that a UBI will be taken up any time soon for many reasons regardless of how well Guy Standing answers all the objections. But social amelioration has always been hard won after a long, hard fight and when eventually the proposal in question is adopted, it is the only viable option. And even then the option may continue to be contested down the decades or even centuries and must be continuously fought for. Decent social welfare and good employment rights are obvious examples.






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