democracy equality

Ten arguments for a Citizens Income

The citizen’s income is an idea on the ascendant at the moment. It’s been languishing forgotten for a couple of decades, but seems to be capturing the imagination again. There are campaigns and discussions, new reports and studies, and several countries actively considering it.

There’s a fuller explanation here, but to recap: the citizen’s income (or basic income) is a sum of money paid to every adult in the country, no questions asked. It’s not enough to live on and replace the need to work entirely, but it provides a safety net, and much of the benefits system could be simplified and replaced. Here are ten reasons why its an idea to take seriously:

1 – Inclusion
A citizens income gives everyone a stake in the country’s wealth. It would acknowledge that we all have a role in creating our national prosperity, and we should all gain from that. We all have a share in the things that we collectively own, such as our natural resources. And as everyone is included equally, it would break down prejudices about rich people taking everything for themselves at one end of society, and prejudices about ‘scrounging’ at the other.

2 – Stewardship
If the revenues to pay for the citizens income were raised through a carbon tax, it would give everyone a stake in our atmosphere too. We all pay when others abuse our environment, so why don’t we all benefit when people use it responsibly? A citizens’ income and a commons approach could play an important role in stewarding our air, freshwater, oceans and other natural resources.

3 – Unpaid work
In 2001, which was the last time we checked, half the work in the British economy was going unpaid. That’s mainly in the form of child rearing, housework and care. Some might argue that one shouldn’t be paid for such things, but if people don’t care for others, the state has to do it instead and the taxpayer pays for it. So it’s in everyone’s interests to make sure people are supported in the unpaid work they do.

4 – An aging population
Following directly on from the above, the issue of care is going to get more pressing, because Britain has an aging population. A citizens’ income would support informal care through families, communities and neighbours. If we are not able to meet care needs this way, the bill to society will be increasingly crushing. To put a figure on it, in 2014 carers were doing an estimated £119 billion worth of unpaid care. Compare that to the total NHS budget of £116 billion for this year, and consider that the number of carers is likely to rise by 40% by 2035.

5 – Inequality
While we’re on the topic of care, let’s remember that most unpaid work is done by women, so a citizens’ income would improve gender inequality. By giving people the safety net of a basic guaranteed income, you open up possibilities for entrepreneurship, further education, leisure or volunteering. This reduces inequalities of time and opportunity. The citizens income relationship to the overall wealth gap is more complicated, but broadly positive.

6 – Technological change
There’s another social trend that could make a citizens’ income more necessary: new technology is reducing demand for labour, as more sophisticated machines and computers take over tasks that people used to do. Self-driving vehicles are perhaps the most high-profile of these. A citizens income would allow people to cope with reduced work hours, part time working, periods of unemployment or retraining, or transitioning to self-employment.

7 – Underemployment
Under-employment is already a problem in Britain, though zero hour contracts, or the growing trend of outsourcing services to freelancers. A growing number of people find themselves ineligible for benefits, but unable to get enough hours to make ends meet. The current welfare system doesn’t work well for people in this situation.

8 – Freedom
Another consideration is that the citizens income would give us more freedom to create the kind of life we want. That could include work and a career, running a small business, bringing up children, or a life of artistic expression. The current welfare state pays no heed to our personal ambitions, and mainly tries to channel people back into formal employment, regardless of whether that is what they want or need.

9 – The life course
Neither does the welfare system take much account of our life course, and the way our work needs change. Those new to the workforce may value full-time hours as they get started and gain experience, and save for the future. Parents of young children would be much better served by part time working, and so would their children and society generally. A citizens income would help families navigate these changing circumstances.

10 – A changing world
It’s no surprise that the benefits system doesn’t really reflect society very well. It was set up fifty years ago, when women generally stayed at home with the children and men had a job for life. It’s been tweaked and revised in so many ways since it was first conceived, but it was fundamentally build for a different work culture. If we were starting from scratch today, I’d like to think we wouldn’t create anything so bureaucratic, inflexible and intrusive. The citizens income and how we pay for it is an opportunity to boldly rethink the whole way we support each other and what the government’s role should be.

11 comments

  1. I think what worries a lot of those who would support it is that it might start as a basic income similar in level to JSA but that there would be a gradual ratcheting up to unaffordable and socially harmful levels.

    This article demonstrates some of the arguments that would be put to raise it higher and higher. Once raised universal benefits are hard to cut (such as child benefit or free TV licences).

    Giving money with no conditionality raises the concern that democracy can only exist till the majority discovers it can vote itself ever larger sums. At least current benefits are linked to situation.

    And of course what to do in times of high immigration is not addressed here. There is a lot of evidence that people don’t mind benefits going to people like themselves, but not strangers.

    1. All fair but surmountable problems, and most of those are problems that would be equally true of the current system. What’s to stop people voting for freebies at the moment? Or overspending on benefits and letting them run to socially harmful levels?

      Like any political idea, it can be done well or it can be done badly, depending on how it is structured and what the lines of accountability are. I’d have thought it would only kick in at citizenship, or after a given amount of time/and or payment into the system. And control of the payments and their amount would need to be tied to something that couldn’t be hijacked by politicians – an independent body of some sort. If it were constructed as a dividend linked to a commonly held asset (a cap and divident approach to carbon, for example), then payments would be linked to the use and performance of that asset.

      1. Well, restricting it to citizens only works if we leave the EU. Similar for length of time of residency (unless you want to deny it to UK adults under 23 or so). A contribution requirement rather goes against the whole concept since the it is meant to be universal, even for those who haven’t made a contribution.

        I think the example of the minimum wage is instructive. It started at a low level designed not to effect employment (set by an independent body) but campaignerswere not satisfied and said it was too low and to gain popularity we now have the government bringing in the national living wage that will destroy 60,000 jobs (according to the independent body the government has overruled) and still the campaigners will not be satisfied.

        It is all to easy to see politicians raising the citizens’ income in good times and then not daring to cut it in bad.

        Another thought that occurs is that since it would replace most benefits and would be paid to all all of the time, in the event of an recession there wouldn’t be the automatic stabilizer effect we have now that increased benefit payments offset the wider decline in economic activity.

        As you say, none of this is insurmountable But it isn’t where near the slam dunk portrayed by some.

  2. There is a very good argument for it but only if it is paid for out of a land value tax. Otherwise it will just end up in rent, in which case you might as well hand out money to landowners, which is what the CAP does.

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