By Anna Arnone
The idea of a basic income for all, adults and children alike, sometimes referred to as a “universal basic income” or “basic income guarantee”, has been gaining traction in the last couple of years. It can be defined as “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement”.
Although growing in popularity and now being actively discussed at global symposia and conventions, including Davos, Basic Income remains controversial. Objections vary widely and often focus on the assumed innate laziness of the masses, the supposed unfairness of giving people money for doing nothing and that a Basic Income would not be affordable. The opposition comes from both left and right politically, with trade unions often being the most vocal of protestors.
One eminent proponent, the economist Professor Guy Standing author of “Basic Income and How We Can Make it Happen”, swats the ideological and economic objections with ease. He was involved in a successful research programme with the Self Employed Women’s Association in India and argues that people can be more productive if the anxiety and threat of destitution are eradicated. But Basic Income is not just about business productivity, after all much valuable work in society is currently under or unpaid and devalued. Basic Income is about a more egalitarian society in which all have a share in jointly created wealth. Basic Income has to be a better system that the current one of subsidising employers to increase their profits by way of shrinking in-work benefits to employees who still do not have enough to make ends meet.
Basic Income continues to be trialed in various countries. Finland recently ended a two year project, misreported in the mainstream press as a failure. The results are still being analysed and, whilst it may not have increased employment, wellbeing in the trial group increased.
Some detractors argue that Basic Income would force down wages as employers capitalise on the Basic Income – a curious reversal of the argument that people would refuse to work at all and squander the money on booze and fags. Standing argues a Basic Income would give people a choice to refuse to do the badly paid drudgery which is now replacing the better paid jobs that once provided lifetime secure employment. Giving people that choice means wages at the bottom end would rise as people would not be forced to do jobs on pain of Benefit sanctions.
Objectors’ main concerns seem to be about giving poor people the economic power to reject exploitation. However there is a curious reticence to properly tax the super rich and few complain about ‘Trustafarians’ whose wealth is unearned.
Professor Standing is a professional research associate at SOAS and is active in expounding his theories on the economic and political realities that have led to the growth of the group or class he describes as the Precariat – whose precarious existence is caused by zero hours contracts and woefully low wages as risk is shifted from employer to employee.
• Professor Standing will be giving a talk on, and answering questions about, Basic Income at an event organised by Printed Matter Bookshop at 6.00pm on 2nd April at the Printworks. Entrance £2.
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