Basic Income: Not Just a Political Pipedream
It’s a common occurrence to hear people bemoaning the inadequacy of the Welfare state. Whether they’re criticising cuts to child tax credits and disability allowances, or claiming benefits allow “scroungers” to live off the taxes paid by others, it’s clear that a lot of us believe our current welfare system just isn’t working. The same story is seen around the world, but increasingly a radical solution is being proposed, and seriously considered, to overhaul the welfare state – basic income.
The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) defines basic income as ‘an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement’. In general it is proposed that this would replace the majority of other benefits, perhaps with the exception of those like disability benefits which make particular people’s lives more costly. Ideas similar to basic income are first seen in Thomas More’s Utopia in the 16th century, when the Renaissance questioned the idea that welfare was the sole responsibility of the church. Since then the idea has received support from across the political spectrum, but remained on the outskirts of economic and political theory.
Now it seems that could be changing though. The introduction of a basic income in various Dutch cities made the national news this month; twenty municipalities throughout the Netherlands, including major cities like Utrech and Nijmegen, have begun trial schemes in which small groups of participants are paid equivalent to £660 a month, and also allowed to keep any earnings they make on top of this. This follows similar schemes and experiments around the world which have highlighted the benefits of replacing other welfare systems with a basic income. In India, research began in 2010 which assessed the impact of basic income trials in India, finding they improved nutrition, health, school attendance and performance, as well as women’s independence. The improvements weren’t just social either; economic activity increased, indebtedness dropped and people saved more of their money.
But evidence that basic income could be a step forward isn’t a recent discovery either. One of the most famous pieces of research into basic income was a Canadian scheme – dubbed “Mincome” – which ran in the town of Dauphin during the 1970s. The entire population of 10,000 were guaranteed their income to a certain level, and told this would be topped up by the government if it fell below this amount. It was found that only married women and adolescents worked less, the former to essentially extend their maternity leave, with the latter group’s school grades improving as a result of not needing to work. However the research ended when a Conservative government came to power who had no interest in rolling the scheme out further. In Alaska, a variation on basic income has been in place since 1982, using the revenue from oil mining in the area. Everyone in the state – around 650,000 people – receives a yearly payment, no matter their age, as long as they have lived in Alaska over six months.
So with all this data supporting a basic income why aren’t more people supporting its introduction? It could be an issue of ideology. Basic Income challenges the idea that there is a job for everyone, and that we all must need or want to work – in fact finding work for every person who is unemployed and wants to claim benefits can cost huge amounts of money. Nienke Horst, a policy advisor in Utrech, told the Guardian that there are ‘10,000 unemployed people in Utrecht, but if they all have to do something in return for welfare we just don’t have the people to see to that. It costs too much’. Whilst we may initially be unsure about giving people benefits without asking them to work or volunteer to some degree in return, is it any odder than current policies in place? The Workfare scheme currently running in the UK forces those claiming benefits to work for private companies for free, allowing privately run businesses to profit from their joblessness – surely basic income makes more sense than this?
Maybe the biggest obstacle to the acceptance of basic income is just how different it is from the systems we currently use then. We might criticise it, but the current benefits system is familiar and something we believe we understand. Basic income would mean trying something new, taking a chance on a scheme that would radically alter how we think about work, wages and unemployment. When the Green Party manifesto proposed the introduction of basic income in 2015 it courted controversy, but at least the discussion was put on the table. If we want to change how welfare works that’s what we must keep doing; we must question the status quo and discuss alternatives until they are less alien. Perhaps then basic income could be seriously considered in the UK.