Opinion

We must trust our universal basic instinct

As universal basic income trials begin in the UK, we must consider the overwhelming benefits of helping those most in need

Image: Shutterstock

The latest attempt to see if a universal basic income can work comes in a trial launched in Jarrow, in the north-east of England, and in East Finchley, in North London. Thirty people between those two locations will each receive £1,600 a month for two years. They’ll be assessed to see whether their financial wellbeing improves, and also their mental health.

The idea of a universal basic income is not new. Going back to Thomas More and accelerating through Bertrand Russell, LBJ and some challenging contemporary characters like Elon Musk, the idea of a base level of income for all has gathered curious support on the left and right of politics.

As a means of trying to properly change the system and eradicate poverty, it remains a fascinating prospect. But the challenges are many.

In recent years, there have been a number of trials, the biggest, naturally, in Finland. For two years from 2017, 2,000 randomly chosen people were given a basic monthly income of €560 (£480) to replace their unemployment benefit. One of the metrics they measured was whether having this increased income encouraged or discouraged those people to get into work. The outcomes were inconclusive.

In Wales, there is an ongoing trial, about halfway through, to give 500 care leavers £1,600 a month for two years.

In Ireland, they’re testing this on a different set of people. Since last autumn, about 2,000 artists have been receiving €325 [£280] a week for three years to see what happens. It is a creative accelerant.

Each trial is not universal. It is looking at a different sort of social grouping and then assessing the benefit for them – those currently on benefits, those forced into life without familial backing, those who could create and benefit themselves, and society, but have not been able to afford to get going. You
could add many other people impacted who also deserve to be part of a trial.

Because the truth is this. At heart, the only way for UBI to work is for it to be truly universal. And that then runs into financial, moral and philosophical walls.

For instance, if it was universal, why? Why should Rishi Sunak get the same as somebody currently going through the mill trying to prove they genuinely need a PIP to stay? And at what level will it be set? At the base level currently advised for universal credit per week, or at the level of living wage per week?
And what if there were still other benefits needed for certain member of society. When does it become UBI+?

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Then we move to paying for it. If everybody receives, then the tax system to return money to the public purse could become incredibly complex. Where does tax tapering start? How much in every pound in tax? Is the tax free personal allowance to be abolished? And would universal basic income, as some on the right suggest, provoke idleness and a refusal to work?

These questions are valid, and essential, but they miss a key point and one that circles with increased frequency. Mental health and stress. Being at the bottom and worrying about where every penny will come and go is not just a bit damaging, it’s completely corrosive.

If that was eliminated, and people could start from an even place where they knew the fear of damaging, endless debt and poverty could be stopped, think about the benefits of that, for them, their dependents and society.

It could change everything. On a practical level it could also help so many – those in need of food banks, young families almost broken by childcare costs, older carers forced to stop work to care for a loved one.

We know AI and automation is on the march. We know that society is not functioning to serve those at the bottom. Universal basic income would not be an easy solution. But it is one we must consider deeply now.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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