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Is it time for a UBI in the UK?

by | Sep 30, 2020 | Economics, Society

The recent death by starvation of Mercy Beguma, an asylum seeker in Glasgow, prompted many to ask; How is it possible, or acceptable, for someone to starve to death in one of the world’s wealthiest economies? With the documented growth in foodbanks, homelessness, and a range of issues associated with poverty, it has become a familiar question, If our existing systems fail to the extent that people living here cannot eat, might there be some better options?

One idea that might help mitigate such tragedies is an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). The idea of the UBI is that all citizens, whether in employment or not, would receive a regular payment linked to a baseline standard of living, without going through any means testing.

What are people saying about UBI?

There has been an upsurge of interest in UBI amongst politicians, policy wonks, academics, and community activists in recent years. This growing interest comes as a response to a variety of factors; the rise of AI and the fourth industrial revolution and its implications for the potential death of certain jobs; the perceived failures of Universal Credit and previous benefits systems; the documented increase in poverty, and most recently, of course, the Covid-19 crisis, and the redundancies, financial difficulties and job insecurity that it surely brings with it.

In the political sphere, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas raised the issue of a UBI in parliament at the start of 2016, and there was much enthusiasm expressed for the idea by Corbyn’s Labour. In April this year, Lib Dem interim leader Ed Davey initiated a cross-party letter from 100 MPs calling on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to urgently look at UBI as a response to the economic hit brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. A You Gov poll in the same month found a majority of respondents (51%) sympathetic to the idea of a UBI.

The political traction around a UBI comes on the back of several years of increased advocacy from the likes of the the Citizens’ Basic Income Trust and the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA ), who in 2015 made a strong case for a UBI in their report, Creative Citizen, Creative State subtitled ‘the principled and pragmatic case for a universal basic income’ based on the premise that;

The time is right for an idea which has had powerful advocates for centuries to move to the centre of the debate about the kind of country, the kind of government and the kind of lives we want in the twenty first century. (Matthew Taylor, Foreword)

The idea of UBI: Not only here and not only now

The idea of the unconditional basic income is very far from new in the UK and elsewhere in the world. The first recorded mention on these shores is attributed to Thomas More in his 1516 fictional work Utopia. Such great minds as John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell were later advocates of forms of UBI so the idea has some serious pedigree.

The idea of the unconditional basic income is very far from new in the UK and elsewhere in the world. The first recorded mention on these shores is attributed to Thomas More in his 1516 fictional work Utopia. Such great minds as John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell were later advocates of forms of UBI so the idea has some serious pedigree.

Variations of the UBI idea have been tried or considered around the world. Two of the most recent examples are in the Republic of Ireland and Spain (a direct and speedy response to Covid-19), and other UBI ventures have been tried in Finland ,Germany, Taiwan, Switzerland, Kenya, Canada and the US, where one 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, made his version of UBI (called The Freedom Dividend ) a central platform of his campaign. It might be that such a platform might be deemed too ‘socialist’ for mainstream American politics, but it can also be noted that the US has one of the longest running modern UBI schemes, the state of Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend scheme, started in 1982 on the back of that state’s oil reserves, and still in place now.

Radical solution or utopian dream?

To many the RSA’s premise in Creative State, Creative People might be considered overly idealistic. And while an Irish government Green Paper in 2002 described the idea of a UBI as ‘a beautiful, disarmingly simple idea’, other descriptions of the idea include ‘utopian’ unworkable’ and according to former Lib Dem Leader Vince Cable, requiring ’. “unaffordable generosity and extreme levels of taxation”

Based on all the evidence so far, the jury is out. Earlier this year, The World Bank produced a substantial and rigorous report on the possibilities for UBI, it’s potential benefits and problems, and drew on many examples of trials from around the world. Ultimately, the report didn’t choose a side in the debate, but identified both reasons for and against UBI implementation.

So, what are some of the key arguments for and against UBI before moving onto the significance of the idea for careers practitioners.

Arguments for UBI

  • The prevention of absolute poverty, and the closing of income gaps
  • Potentially reduced bureaucracy around means testing and sanctioning regimes
  • The potential reduction in low-paid and exploitative employment
  • The potential to compensate job losses brought about by AI
  • Supporting people who engage in work that is unpaid but important to community and society (e.g caring for children and the elderly; voluntary community work, cultural and artistic activity, and environmental work)
  • Enhancement of mental health, a sense of autonomy and individual control
  • Enhancing the opportunity for creative and self-chosen work (more on that shortly)
  • The demonstrable failings of the current systems (ideologically and practically)

Arguments against UBI

  • The removal of the incentive to find work
  • The difficulty of filling menial, low wage-but necessary jobs, with knock-on effects to the economy
  • The channelling of funding to people who don’t need it (the ‘universal’ aspect of UBI)
  • The expense involved and the question of how the money is raised
  • A pressure on wage levels, leading to an adverse impact on inflation and competitiveness
  • Replacing one bureaucratic process with another

What’s the significance for social justice and careers practice?

As yet, little has been written directly about the idea of UBI in relation to career guidance. It can be argued that our professional practice is rooted on the idea that the individual should be , as far as possible, in the position to acquire ‘self-chosen’ work that aligns with their skills, aspirations, and values; work that has some meaning for them. The whole notion of career guidance becomes at the very least diminished when conditions force people to accept any work they can, however exploitative and unsuited it might be to who they are. There is a forceful argument that a UBI is a possible method by which that scenario could be avoided;-that of not taking ‘any old job’ leading to poverty and mental and physical ill health, and a wastage of talent that is a loss to communities and society.

Another observation may be that the social groups most vulnerable to unemployment and low wages (e.g. working class young people with low qualifications, the disabled, ethic minorities) are also those who have most to gain from a non-means tested UBI. It could be a genuine mechanism to contribute the ‘levelling up’ that the current government is espousing.. Should it be introduced it might significantly shift the dynamic of many career guidance interactions, allowing clients to explore a greater range of options with a greater sense of agency.

Worth a try?

It’s clear that a UBI wouldn’t be a magical panacea, and experiments with the idea have had mixed results and reactions, but so have existing systems. The RSA’s assertion that the current UK welfare system is ‘increasingly intrusive, complex and ineffective’ is hard to argue with on recent evidence. Perhaps current circumstances present a real opportunity to experiment, maybe with a few local pilots in towns or cities where the developing recession will hit the hardest. Several local councils in the UK have made positive noises in relation to the idea of local UBI pilots. Perhaps the careers profession can be a helpful contributor to this debate.

I’ll leave the final word with Howard Reed and Stuart Lansley , authors of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation commissioned report Universal Basic Income: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? in 2016, who believed the UK should give UBI a try;

Ultimately, a real test of how such a scheme would work depends on the application of a proper, lengthy and adequately sized pilot with a control group. Some idea of the dynamic effects – including on the incentive to work, employment patterns, changes in participants’ well-being and the reaction of employers – may be revealed by the pilots to be launched in Canada and Europe. Nevertheless, these experiments will have their own limitations………. It is certainly time for the UK to follow the lead taken by others and commit to its own pilot scheme.

This post also appears on Career Guidance for Social Justice

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