New Internationalist

Should there be a basic income?

April 2014

Basic Income UK co-ordinator Barb Jacobson and author and sociologist Francine Mestrum go head to head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

Barb

During my adult life I have been a student, feminist, welfare claimant, waitress, journalist, community organizer, mother – all of them with little income or none. An unconditional basic income would make my life easier even if it came at the cost of my current job – as an independent housing and benefits adviser.

YES: Barb Jacobson is co-ordinator of Basic Income UK. A former member of Wages for Housework, she has been active in community organizations since 1991, mainly around housing and health. She works for the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association in central London.

I have been fighting welfare and housing cuts in London since 1981. I am tired of losing.

Some battles have been won: squatters saved much of the Georgian and Victorian fabric of London – later re-privatized; universal child benefit was preserved until just last year; welfare sanctions were delayed until the last Labour administration; a few clinics and hospitals were saved from closure – while the National Health Service (NHS) as a whole was pulled apart.

And the Left are still talking about jobs, regardless of their impact on people’s lives and the environment. Jobs offered by whom? Governments are so corrupt; outside their own cartels, they don’t care about people. Meanwhile, the private sector is determined only to extract profit. This stance is only credible because jobs are most people’s only source of income. It ignores the necessary work outside paid employment that people already do for free.

Surely it’s better to give people money and let them decide what to do with it, as well as what to do with their time, while freeing them up from stress, overwork, humiliation and bureaucratic nightmares.

Francine

I agree that citizens are doing important work in order to organize communities better, to fight for social rights. I also agree that people without a stable job or income face enormous difficulties. They have income problems, obviously, and difficulties with navigating a complex welfare system.

NO: Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences. Her research concerns social development, poverty, inequality, globalization and gender relations. She is co-ordinator of Global Social Justice and represents CETRI (Centre Tricontinental) in the International Council of the World Social Forum.

But from there, where do we go? You speak of a basic income but I am not sure that this is the best solution. If what we mean by a basic income is an amount of money that should be given to all people, rich and poor, without any conditions, then I cannot agree. There are better solutions, like a minimum guaranteed income for all those who are not active in the labour market.

In other discussions I have had about basic income, I have said that poverty is basically an income deficit. To my surprise, many people have protested and told me: ‘No, no, no; poverty is a multidimensional problem, poor people have so many different and related problems …’ But it is these same people who are now saying ‘please, just give money to the poor’.

I do not believe that in order to eradicate poverty, we should give money to the non-poor. But we have to give money to the poor, enough to allow them to live in dignity.

I am not sure I correctly understand what you mean when you talk about your job. Would you prefer not to work but to receive an allowance instead?

Barb

That’s just it – how is the question of who is ‘poor’ and who is ‘non-poor’ to be decided? And by whom? Where is that line to be drawn?

Isn’t a person trapped by financial dependence in a marriage with a violent, or even just a boring, partner ‘poor’, no matter how wealthy he or she might be? Isn’t anyone who does a job that is demeaning, dull, socially useless, or physically damaging, in some essential way ‘poor’, no matter how high their actual wage?

Why should jobs that contribute to the general impoverishment of the environment, that damage the wellbeing of the people who do them, or that endanger other human beings be allowed? If we want to get rid of these activities – and we’ll have to somehow if we want to survive as a species – won’t the people who currently do them need to make ends meet while they, and we, figure out less harmful ways to make a living?

In fact, why does anyone need to have a job at all – unless you live off rents or dividends, or in other words, directly off other people’s labour? Wouldn’t it be better to pool this surplus and distribute it more equally, along with work itself? An unconditional basic income, paid to all individuals, would remove the stigma of not earning a wage and would give people time to attend to the things neither governments nor the markets pay for.

You ask if I would prefer not to work any more but rather receive an allowance. What I meant was that my job should not have to exist. While I have no doubt that at the moment I’m doing socially necessary work, I’d be far happier if the social-security system didn’t have to be ‘negotiated’ with other people’s help, and if I had more time to do – and think about – other things. Whether that would be ‘work’ in your eyes or not, I don’t know.

Francine

We both want another economy and another society. We both want to share the work and to share the incomes.

A basic income might solve some problems, but certainly not all. Environmental problems will need a different approach. As will poverty.

A basic income is paid in money, and this money comes from the wealth produced by others. These producers also deserve our respect and should not be asked to pay for the people who do not need it – Francine

People who fall under the poverty line and are not able to engage in the labour market should get a sufficiently high allowance. People above the poverty line may also need help with housing, childcare and education. They should not get a basic income, which, at any rate, will not help with these issues. They do, however, need the social rights and benefits from the welfare state which came about after many years of social struggle. We should not abandon it.

A basic income is paid in money, and this money comes from the wealth produced by others. These producers also deserve our respect and should not be asked to pay for the people who do not need it.

As for jobs: indeed, some should not exist; but all work should be paid, even the work of caregivers. It is vital work and the responsibility for it should be shared. That is where the conditions come in.

Barb

The principle of unconditionality is paramount to making welfare a liberating proposition for those who need it most. It is also the most practical way to provide it.

Every week I see the problems caused by means-testing. There are the barriers to claiming: people’s reluctance to allow bureaucrats to delve into their personal finances and the shame felt by those who need the money. The first is particularly true of pensioners who qualify for a pension top-up. I’ve seen many people ruin all other aspects of their lives – losing family relationships, friendships, their homes – by going into debt before finally claiming the means-tested benefits they were eligible for.

There is the high effective tax rate, so that, if people work and still qualify for benefits, they can only keep 15 per cent of the extra money that they make on top of benefits. There is also the problem of increasingly flexible, precarious contracts that cause people to spend more and more time making and cancelling claims, in turn increasing the burden on the bureaucratic system that administers them.

An unconditional basic income, paid to all individuals, would remove the stigma of not earning a wage and would give people time to attend to the things neither governments nor the markets pay for – Barb

All of this seems to me a huge – and perfectly avoidable – cause of real suffering, to say nothing of an intolerable waste of everyone’s time.

I’m not worried about those people who ‘don’t need’ an unconditional basic income, however you define who they are – they will be taxed on income above this payment anyway. Personally, I would prefer that any income earned by actual work not be taxed at all. Taxes on land value, resource and financial speculation that have been proposed would more evenly balance unearned income collected by the richest with their debt to society. At the moment, at least in Britain, unearned income is taxed at rates several times lower than taxes on earned income.

Of course, people in all income groups will still need collectively organized services like health, education, childcare and housing.

Francine

An unconditional basic income is not possible and is not desirable, because citizenship is a political concept that implies a relationship between the state and its citizens. Citizens recognize the power of the state, and states are responsible for the welfare of their citizens. We cannot allow a state just to give alms to people and then abandon them. We cannot allow citizens to accept money and then ignore the state.  

There will always be conditions to social benefits.

If current conditionality is unacceptable – and it is – then it has to be improved, to be made human. Not be abandoned.

Some advocates of basic income pretend that they can pay for it while also preserving the welfare state! Here in Belgium, a basic income of $960 – not a decent income – would cost 24 per cent of our GDP. Our current social security also costs 24 per cent of GDP. How could these two expenditures be combined?

Let’s face it: many people just want to do away with welfare states, and most of all with trade unions. They want to preserve the unjust and unacceptable social and economic structures that are at the root of poverty and inequality.

While we agree on many analytical points, I do not agree with your solutions. I want to re-think social protection in terms of social commons, based on our common humanity, on social and economic rights others have struggled for.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 471 This feature was published in the April 2014 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Comments on Should there be a basic income?

Leave your comment