Will People Living Solely On UBI Be Demonised As “Basics”?

Plans for Universal Basic Income (UBI) are increasingly in the news these days. Last week the RSA advocated steps towards a UBI by proposing that all under-55s be given £10,000 and there is a new book out which looks at the evidence from around the world for how such a scheme might work. 

The idea enjoys support from across the political spectrum, from some on the left who see it as an explicit and much-needed statement of equal human worth to sections of the right (often libertarians) who see it as preferable to current social security systems and as a possible spur to greater enterprise. Coming from the business world are more pragmatic arguments which revolve around future-proofing the economy when artificial intelligence and robots have, supposedly, taken all the jobs.

As our Executive Director made clear recently, there will be considerable challenges in making UBI work with the existing UK social security system from pensions through to housing. Most proposals for UBI in the UK are of a hybrid nature where it would sit alongside some retained elements of the social security system, especially housing benefit, the complete removal of which would be socially disastrous and politically unacceptable. This, in practice, would make introducing UBI hugely expensive overall.

And if we imagine a future where we have UBI, will it really remove the stigma that is currently visited on those living on social security?  Many people, for reasons such as ill health or other misfortune, may find themselves living permanently on UBI and unable to acquire much if any further income above that base line. It’s not hard to imagine certain sections of the media and commentariat skipping effortlessly (and thoughtlessly) on from talk of “scroungers” to “basics”. There’s a clear linguistic reproach in the very term – basic people living basic lives and so on…

For all its faults the current social security system does envisage that people will find work and increase their income, although as we have shown the taper rate under Universal Credit is too harshly applied and holds people back. In short, advocates of UBI will need to prove that their preferred system is at least competitive in terms of cost to properly funding and thereby fixing the holes in our current safety net. They will also need to convince potential allies that UBI will tackle inequality and poverty more effectively than all the other predistributive and redistributive changes campaigned for by trade unions, co-ops, charities/NGOs and other progressive groups around the world. 

Given the complexity of the subject it is imperative that we test the idea with more pilot studies and ideally large-scale ones that are run over reasonably long periods of time so the full ramifications of the idea can be evidenced as far as possible. It may well be that UBI is an idea whose time has come but if ever there was a case for looking (and looking hard) before we leap, then this is it. 

Bill Kerry – Supporters & Local Groups Manager