The idea has been backed by a vast array of divergent social and political voices. From Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu; from Mitt Romney and Richard Nixon to John McDonnell and Pope Francis. Having support from across the political spectrum can be a pretty good measure of the future success- but it’s certainly no guarantee. So what exactly is a ‘Universal Basic Income’, and is it worth fighting for?
Put simply, a Universal Basic Income is the idea of the government giving every citizen in a country (universal) a regular payment which would allow them to have their fundamental needs covered (basic income). No strings attached.
Democratic Presidential Candidate, Andrew Yang, when putting this forward as his signature policy proposal during the 2020 campaign, suggested the amount given to citizens would be £1000/month. Meanwhile, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary (and runner-up in the recent Leadership Race), Rebecca Long-Bailey called for a UBI to match the UK living wage.
First proposed in Utopia, Thomas More’s 1516 satirical book- to “provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse”- UBI can be viewed as the ultimate safety net to ensure no citizen falls into complete financial despair, despite their circumstances. We do already have a welfare system in place in the UK though. It might fall desperately short of providing enough money for people to live on, but it is something. Surely we can just increase the current benefits? Why do we need something completely new?
“It’s now become even more obvious that the £410/month provided in the Universal Credit system is not even close to sufficient”
Well there’s two major circumstantial reasons why UBI is preferable to the current benefits system. Starting with the most pressing issue: Coronavirus- the pandemic has led to millions of people being left without jobs, either furloughed using the Government’s job retention scheme, asked to take a pay cut, having their hours reduced, or being laid off completely. It’s now become even more obvious that the £410/month provided in the Universal Credit system is not even close to sufficient. Further compounding this, the recent influx of claims due to Corona-related job losses has meant that the waiting time of 5 weeks for the first payment has now gone up, leaving many unable to pay rent, bills and buy food and other essentials.
Universal Credit was originally introduced as a replacement to the previous welfare system which had different payments for the six types of benefits originally provided- in an attempt to simplify the system. The other apparent advantage of UC was that it would increase the amount of people in employment, largely because UC itself isn’t financially viable, but also through supposed improvements to the administrative system used to find jobs for people. However, not only did UC not achieve its stated goal before Coronavirus hit, but this crisis has now massively reduced the possibility of anyone being able to find work. Recently, one of the main architects of Universal Credit Iain Duncan Smith argued that replacing UC with a UBI would be “a disincentive to work”- clearly missing the point that we don’t actually want people to be going to work whilst a highly contagious virus is working its way through the population.
As well as this, UBI helps to support the huge numbers of people who have been completely left out of both the original furlough scheme, and the additional funds given to those who were self-employed. There are countless examples of people who happened to get laid off just before the furlough scheme came in, or have found the government’s calculation of their self-employment to be woefully inadequate.
In these circumstances, with the economy crashing in front of our eyes, and people no longer having their regular income met- UBI seems like an ideal solution to ensure that no one is left behind during this crisis.
In the long term, UBI could be viewed as an essential policy to combat the increasing presence of automation within industry. You only need to take a cursory look into a McDonald’s or a Tesco to see how the rise of robots is affecting the world of work. It is becoming clear that in the near future, two of the most common areas of employment: manual factory work, and lorry driving, will be automated away. If vast proportions of the population are going to be out of work, the government will have to step up and provide some form of financial support to compensate them. Is UBI therefore a fix-all solution for our current crisis and the problems which lie ahead?
“The most obvious, and most commonly cited, issue with bringing in a UBI is simply it’s enormous cost.”
Well the policy is certainly not without its critics. The most obvious, and most commonly cited, issue with bringing in a UBI is simply it’s enormous cost. Should the UK utilise UBI on Yang’s terms, paying every adult £1000/month, this would roughly amount to a £50bn/month bill for the government. Whilst some conservatives would argue that this could be made up by cancelling other benefits, leaving UBI as the only financial support available- there are other, better ways of finding the money. As UBI proponent Guy Standing argues, tax breaks given to the wealthy and corporations “cost the public exchequer £430 billion per year. You have all the money there.”
Those on the left also argue that we should be wary of declaring UBI to be the saviour of humanity. The risk of wealthy elites using the implementation of UBI to allow them to sacrifice any other forms of financial support is abundantly clear, and there will be serious issues over what people are going to do with their time if all forms of work are phased out.
Nevertheless, this current pandemic, and the need to rapidly reduce employment has made UBI an essential short-term fix, and it should be introduced as soon as possible in order to provide urgent support for the millions who need it.
There is currently a petition circulating which contains the signatures of over 110 MP’s and Peers from the Labour Party, SNP, Liberal Democrats and others- which I would strongly encourage people to sign, alongside emailing your local MP and imploring them to raise this issue in Parliament. In short, it is the best option we have to help out those who are currently struggling financially, and those who soon will be.
If you want to know more about UBI, automation and the future of work- here a few great long reads that will explain things in further detail:
By Glyn Sheldon