Is it time to campaign for a Basic Income?

by Gerry McCartney • The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has just passed a Unite motion at their recent conference in Brighton to support a policy of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), otherwise known as a Citizens’ Income. This is a policy the SSP adopted several years ago, but one which we have not yet made waves about.

So what is a Citizens’ Income? Simply put, it is an income that all people in society get without any means testing or conditionality.

It is different from most social security benefits in that it cannot be withdrawn or sanctioned, and it is paid in addition to any money received from other sources (including wages).

In most forms of the policy the income for children is set at a lower rate and is paid to the mother or main caregiver.

Because it sets out to guarantee the necessary income for all people in society, it usually replaces all or most other benefits (the occasional exceptions are some specific disability benefits where there are high costs that have to be met as a result of disability).

The key argument for a Citizens’ Income is that, depending on the level at which it is set, it can eradicate poverty at a stroke. To achieve this outcome it would need to be funded at a high level and would require higher levels of progressive taxation.

However, the additional income received by those on high incomes as a results of the citizens’ income would have much of that taxed back and there would be substantial savings on the administration of the social security system which would be substantially simpler.

Of course the largest savings would result from a massive reduction in all of the health and social problems caused by poverty.

There are other benefits from a Citizens’ Income. The stigma and discrimination experienced by people on benefits would be eradicated. Instead, the Citizens’ Income would become a part of being a citizen, a right, an expectation of living here—much in the same way as the NHS has become.

Unlike the current welfare system it could not be seen as a payment for the poor or unworthy—people could not be ‘othered’ in a system where everyone received the payment. It would, in short, be something that the whole of society would want to defend.

The Citizens’ Income would provide a means for people to retrain and enter education without fear of poverty; it would allow artists, homemakers, carers and people with disabilities to be equally valued and given a secure income.

It would even help people setting up businesses by allowing greater risk taking with innovative ideas that might otherwise by too much of a gamble, thereby helping the economy. It would also provide for strike pay for everyone—a game changer for worker power in disputes.

There have been some objections to the policy—not least when the former leader of the Green Party was unable to explain the policy clearly after the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested that it would result in some people becoming poorer as a result.

The key to this is dependent on the level of Citizens’ Income, and most of the modelling of this done to date has modelled relatively low income levels rather than one which would lift people out of poverty.

Bearing in mind that the relative poverty threshold would itself increase as Citizens’ Income was introduced because it would move so many people’s incomes up at the lower end of the income distribution.

A further objection has involved the conflation of Citizens’ Income with Universal Credit. However, these are completely different things—Universal Credit is not actually a universal benefit and nor will it be set at a consistent level across the population (and certainly not a high level).

Others have suggested that the policy is utopian or impossible to fund. It is certainly an ambitious policy, but to argue for it at a lower level would be dangerous because it could result in people’s incomes declining as it replaces other benefits.

As a result, the case has to be made for it at a poverty eradicating level and therefore on the same basis as the case is made for the NHS or state pensions.

Yes, it is expensive, but it is worth it. It certainty isn’t infeasible however—at a level of around £9,000 per year would there would not be a need for much change in taxation rates.

This is an emancipatory policy which would eradicate poverty and benefit-related stigma at a stroke. Yes, there is work to be done to work out the details, but is that not something worth fighting for?

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