Photo credit: Knox O (Wasi Daniju) via photopin cc

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about universal basic income (UBI) (which is sometimes called “citizen’s income” or “Basic Income Guarantee”). UBI is the idea that absolute poverty can be alleviated by providing every member of a society with an unconditional subsistence income.

There was some speculation last year about the possibility of the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, lending his support to the idea of basic universal income. Corbyn had stated during the leadership contest that he was interested in the idea of a “guaranteed social wage”, but that he believed there were issues that needed to be worked through. I support the UBI in principle, but Corbyn is right: the UBI raises problems for some social groups that really do need to be addressed.

A universal basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means testing or a work requirement. It has been proposed at various times over the centuries by thinkers from Thomas More and John Stuart Mill to, more recently, Richard Murphy, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. Its appeal historically reaches across the political spectrum, from Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King to Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman.

Libertarians who object to income redistribution in principle usually concede that a Negative Income Tax (a progressive income tax system where people earning below a certain amount receive supplemental pay from the government instead of paying taxes) is the least controversial form of welfare, because it is administratively simple and “perverts incentives” less than most welfare schemes. It is a form of basic income that is particularly appealing to many liberals and libertarians because it is unpaternalistic – it’s highly compatible with laissez faire and neoliberal economic models.

However, the current government are libertarian paternalists, blending a small state ideology with a psychocratic approach to governing, using behavioural change techniques (Nudge) to fulfil ideologically-driven policy outcomes. The current highly conditional welfare state is not only invasive, it is heavily paternalistic. Restrictions on eligibility are imposed in order to coerce welfare recipients to live their lives in a way that the state thinks is “good” for them. Or good for the state.

A significant proportion of the government’s “behavioural interventions” are aimed at the poorest citizens because of Nudge theories about “cognitive bias” and “perverse incentives.” There is a clear authoritarian approach to tackling poverty in the UK, with a policy commitment that does not involve the most obvious solution of alleviating it by giving poor people money. Instead we witness an approach that tinkers with “incentives” such as welfare sanctions, for example, and a punitive treatment of those in poverty more generally.

In recent years, there has been a failure to tackle unemployment and underemployment, this has prompted politicians and academics to revisit the idea. Opponents of the basic income have raised concerns including work disincentives, and the size of the political spending commitment required (objections from the Right) and lack of targeted support for those most in need (objection from the Left). I agree that the latter is cause for concern.

Last year, the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT), which has given advice to the Green Party and often cited by the Greens, has modelled the party’s scheme and discovered a major design flaw. It was revealed that 35.15% of households would lose money, with many of the biggest losers among the poorest households. At the time, Malcolm Torry, director of the CIT, which is a small charitable research body, said: “I am not sure the Green party has yet taken on our new research or the need to retain a means-tested element. We have only just published the new work.”

Supporters of UBI point to a wide range of substantial benefits, from ending poverty and reducing inequality, to securing better working conditions and a greater recognition of socially valuable unpaid contributions, such as caring roles and child rearing,peer-to-peer support, community work outside of employment and volunteering.

Welfare administration is heavily bureaucratised; it would be much less costly to simply write cheques for the poorest citizens. The government spends a lot on welfare but spends it very badly. With an array of programmes aimed at “getting people into work” delivered by costly private providers that are driven by a profit incentive, it’s clear to see that those actually needing the support gain far less from the current system than those employed to deliver various strands of that “support.”

Many people are still living in poverty, too, despite claiming welfare support. The system does need to be changed. Non means-tested income is much simpler to administrate, making it a compelling proposition when considering ways to reduce fraud or levels of bureaucracy in welfare systems.

Supporters of basic income argue that it would alleviate absolute poverty and would also motivate people to work because they would always better off, as work-related income would be additional to their subsistence income.

One of the strongest arguments for basic income is that people would no longer be forced to work in order to meet their basic needs. This means that employers would find it difficult to exploit workers, and would be pushed to offer decent wages, good terms and employment conditions in order to attract workers.

People would have greater freedom to pursue meaningful, suitable and appropriate employment rather than having to take any job to avoid poverty and destitution. De-commodifying labor by decoupling work from income liberates people from the “tyranny of wage slavery” and leaves a space for innovation, creativitity and rebalances power relationships between wealthy, profit-motivated employers and employees.

All of these things considered, there are good reasons to provide a social safety net through the mechanism of a “Basic Income Guarantee” (BIG).

Minimum Living Income

However, one longstanding criticism of BIG is that it would provide  payments to citizens that are already very wealthy, perpetuating social inequality, and wasting resources. Another is that it does not take into account the long-term impacts and provide adequate support for those who cannot work, such as those who are ill and disabled. Such detail matters very much, and we must not allow basic income to be used as an excuse for dismantling essential welfare support for social groups that need long-term aid to survive, in order to fulfil partisan ideological commitments. It’s unlikely to be politically feasible, currently, given the strong investment various interest groups have in maintaining the current system. But among those are none of the citizens the system is meant to actually support.

If a Minimum Living Income policy was applied without a means-tested component, then poorer households would end up receiving far less in state benefits than they would under the existing system.

These are reasons why Welfare Weekly supports the idea of a guaranteed living income for people unable to work because of illness and disability, which provides an income equal to the living wage. It must be enshrined in law, and it must be calculated to meet the costs of basic needs adequately, as well as taking into account the cumulative impacts of poverty.

Currently, the UK Green Party propose that a basic income must also include an additional supplement for disabled people and lone parents. Children would receive a reduced Basic Income, Child Benefit. However, for disabled people and those assessed by their GP as not capable of work, an extra £30 per week is proposed, which is nowhere near adequate. Though the policy consultation document states “there will be no reduction in the total amount of money spent on disability, and, during the transition, no disabled person will receive less than they do under the old system.”  

The document goes on to say: “the whole area of disability benefits will need review in the light of the introduction of the Basic Income (see above). The existing disability system is in effect a supplement to a very different overall benefits system.”

How people are “assessed” for this extra support would be open to debate, but we support the view that GPs, specialists and consultants ought to have a significant input and final say in any kind of illness and disability assessment.

Currently, most people (over three-quarters ) who are disabled became so during their working life. There is an implicit political prejudice regarding disability, evident in policy-making, which is that it is an undesirable state and somehow preventable.

There is another more explicitly stated prejudice, which relates to the oversimplistic false dichotomy of society. Citizens have been redefined as taxpayers or economic free-riders. However, not only have most disabled people worked and contributed tax and national insurance, people claiming social security also contribute significantly to the Treasury, because we pay VAT, council tax, bedroom tax and a variety of other stealth taxes.

The state confines its attention mainly to re-connecting disabled people with the labour market, without any consideration of potential health and safety risks in the workplace, as a strategy of “support,”  and justifies the draconian cuts to support as providing “incentives” for people to work, by constructing a narrative that rests on the bogus and socially divisive taxpayer/free-rider dichotomy.

I don’t accept that health problems and disability ought to be seen as the cause of the socioeconomic deprivation that many of us are experiencing, because the real cause is entirely social and political. Policies, which exclude disabled people from their design and rationale, have extended and perpetuated institutional and cultural discrimination against sick and disabled people. Disability and illness are medical (and not moral or political) conditions.The government have turned this “is” into a moralising “ought” – which is basically that we ought to work, regardless of any medically defined barriers to that outcome. Apparently, the “cure” for unemployment due to illness and disability, and sickness absence from work, is work.

It’s a prejudiced government that has edited the script regarding sick roles – we no longer have medical sick notes, they have been replaced by political fit notes. The subtext is that we must participate in the neoliberal world of mainstream work without any choices, without reasonable adaptations and without support. Without any acknowledgement of illness and disability, in fact. Or, we have to accept being redefined, our identity rewritten as “dependent”, “impaired” “unfit for work” as a trade-off for a degree of meagre support.

All of our previous achievements and contributions are forgotten. We once celebrated the achievements of disabled people, but now, we cannot, because disabled people are systematically repressed. We are politically defined as either fit for work (and thus not seen as “disabled”) or not. There are no other options for us, unless we happen to be very wealthy as well as ill.

We are faced with an overly simplistic, terribly reductive and dehumanising either/or choice.

We are deemed either fit for work, or too disabled to work, with no accommodation made for what we may be able to contribute in myriad ways to society, nor is our past accumulative experience and skill regarded as a valuable. The moment there is a hint we may have some kind of tenuous work-related capability, all support is withdrawn. However, once we are deemed unfit for work, we are denied a full  citizen’s status.

This narrow political approach does nothing to enable and support people, nor does it reflect human diversity. It simply disables us further and denies us autonomy and the right to define ourselves. It’s an approach that actually punishes people for the abilities, experience and skills that they have, stifling human potential. The moment those abilities and skills are revealed at a work capability assessment, all support is withdrawn and those qualities remain unfulfilled. Instead of investing in personal development and extending opportunities, the government is simply cutting social security and public service costs at our expense. We are expected to participate in an unaccommodating job market or suffer the dehumanising consequences and impoverishment of claiming social security long-term.

There is no support or “incentive” for creating circumstances where disabled people’s skills may be transfered. There is no support to help anyone adapt their skills and experience to fit future employment. Access to higher education has been restricted because of the steep rise in cost, especially for mature and disabled students. There is nothing in place to ensure that employers recognise disabled people’s skills and experiences and make adaptations to accommodate people wanting to work, and no safety net at all to encourage personal development for disabled people, since all support is tied to rigid definitions of disability. You can either work or not.

Of course, sick and disabled people are not the only ones being stigmatised and radically reduced by a particularly toxic combination of social conservatism and neoliberalism. The recognition and celebration of human potential, diversity and equal worth has been superceded by an all-pervasive Puritan “hard work” ethic. Our worth is being defined purely in terms of our economic contribution. We are measured out in pounds and pennies whilst making billions for a handful of other people. That is a value that comes exclusively from the dominant paradigm-shaping elite – the ones who actually profit from your hard work. You don’t.

Under the guise of lifting burdens on business, this government has imposed burdens on those with disabilities by removing the “reasonable adjustments” that make living our lives possible and allow us some dignity. The labour market is unaccommodating, providing business opportunities for making profit, but increasingly, the needs and rights of the workforce are being politically sidelined. This will invariably reduce opportunities for people to participate in the labour market because of its increasingly limiting terms and conditions.

This highlights the paramount importance of shifting the political focus to the pressing need to change a disabling culture and to actually listen to our lived experiences, including us in policy design from that of merely coercing us into fitting reductive Conservative definitions to accommodate and fit in with a neoliberal model of society.

It’s not a reflection of a “culture of entitlement” to think that people with disabilities and illnesses ought to get significantly more support than those who are healthy, in order to meet their needs. To think that those who have supported others through their work and taxes have a better claim than those who have not; to think that special arrangements need to be made to ensure the material security of children, or to enable people to cope with skyrocketing medical costs, and so on. Precisely because of its general nature, a BIG is ill-suited to deal with these social groups presenting additional needs.

Many libertarians and Conservatives want to abolish the welfare state altogether. Many progressives, on the other hand, would be perfectly happy to see a BIG added on top of our currently existing welfare state. Perhaps the ideal compromise would be to ensure a radically scaled down safety net remains that is responsive to the needs of social groups that are potentially vulnerable, to ensure these groups, especially disabled and ill people, have the equivalent of a living wage in terms of income.

Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT) and others have spent the past three decades researching the proposition theoretically, practically, and fiscally.  In the US, Switzerland (until recently), Netherlands, Finland and Canada there is an energetic debate about a Basic Income and pilots are being carried out. A system that has mainly been tried in the developing world is starting to gain real traction elsewhere including in the US state of Alaska. Basic Income-type experiments were first carried out in the US and Canada in the 1970s.

It’s about time the debates around guaranteed living income were far more considerate and inclusive of the issues facing social groups that cannot work, and those who experience additional barriers to finding suitable employment.