Basic income – transforming benefits in the era of the precariat

The time has come to seriously consider basic income - the current system of coercive sanctions and meagre benefits is not fit for purpose.

Stuart Weir
3 February 2015

Flickr/ruSSeLLhiGGs. Some rights reserved.

If you rely on Andrew Neil and the rest of the slavish press and TV then you will know that the Green Party has goofed big time with its proposal for Citizen’s, or Basic, Income. The onslaught is intense. Somehow a magic figure has materialised and is taken as read – Citizen’s Income would cost £280 billion, are the Greens out of their tiny minds? Who exactly produced this figure? What factors, costs and savings – for example, from the huge budget for our inefficient and complex benefits system – were taken into account. 

Oddly, the BBC4 Today programme doesn’t seem to have asked these questions. The £280 billion was chucked unquestioned at Caroline Lucas MP on Monday morning. Yet, as she said, the proposal is aspirational, and will not be in the Green Party manifesto.

The media furore over how realistic and affordable Basic Income is contrasted sharply with the success of the idea in practice in India that I took part in at the same time. I have been with Guy Standing, author of The Precariat, while he introduced the results of a pilot basic income scheme in poor villages in India. Standing, who was followed round by a Dutch camera crew, is one of four authors of the book, Basic Income: A Transformative Policy for India.

Citizen’s or Basic Income is a simple idea. Everyone receives a modest benefit that is paid in cash individually to men and women, and to women for their children, entirely without conditions. It is an answer to the reality of insecure employment. It works for example in modified form in Brazil and the idea is gaining ground across Europe where Switzerland will put it to the people in a referendum.

 Last year I saw the results of the pilot scheme in two of the villages where it was introduced.  The scheme was truly emancipatory for people individually and communally, and especially for women. In India, as in most welfare systems around the world, people are given benefits only if they meet certain conditions. The roots of this obligation spring from the universal fear that somehow the lazy and feckless poor will sign on without any intention of working or  maintaining themselves. Everywhere legislators add all manner of ideological and moral imperatives and seek to impose this or that piece of social engineering.

In India, the traditional regime of conditionality demeans the recipients, makes impossible demands on them, cheats them and empowers officials and intermediaries to cheat them. The introduction of modest unconditional cash benefits freed the people of these villages, gave them dignity and more control over their lives and brought about a rise in productivity, incomes and work.

Far from wasting the cash grants, as officialdom predicted, villagers invested them in renewing their houses and building latrines; bulk buying of foodstuffs; paying school fees and sending their children to school in uniform;  investing in seeds and pesticides, goats and oxen, and at least one Jersey cow – which led to a significant shift from paid labour to self-cultivation; buying sewing machines for “own account” businesses making blouses, petticoats; treating unaddressed illnesses, such as TB and blindness, and remedying injuries.  Often they pooled the extra cash, for example, to buy a communal television set, to repair the spire of their temple, to create a credit union. “This is our story,” said one woman who had been sceptical. “We have learned that we can always trust the poor”. 

Here in the UK, the coalition government practices a peculiarly cruel set of conditions and restrictions on people receiving out of work benefits that are enforced by financial sanctions that withdraw the basic benefit and break the link with other entitlements. Their aim is to force people on benefits into work: Arbeit Macht Frei. Ministers justify this aim on the back of a big lie – i.e., that jobs are readily available and employment is on the rise. The implication is that “employment” remains substantially what it was for most of the twentieth century.

But today’s “employment” figures mask a new reality. Much of the supposedly growing workforce is made up of people who have been forced off benefit but not into work; of sacked workers who are driven into makeshift low-paid and insecure and casual work, or into zero-hour contracts; of people who venture into precarious and often unprofitable self-employment. We are in the new era of the precariat, in Europe as well as in Britain. For some reason – who knows, out of timidity, stupidity, habit? – Labour’s leaders do not challenge the big lie and stick to an obsolete conception of employment.

In India, conditionality empowers official intermediaries, and intermediaries bring corruption.  We can see that clearly from afar. But conditionality nearer home brings corruption of a different sort. It embeds and perpetuates age-old prejudices and suspicions that are now being disgracefully manipulated by government rhetoric and policies. Our society is being poisoned and people on benefit suffer from the shame of stigma as well as the deprivations that government’s lesser eligibility rule piles on them.

I cannot prove it, but I believe that Basic Income is affordable and technically feasible. Apart from the prejudices of a fragmented society and divide and rule politics, one other major obstacle to even considering Basic Income is that it is “unrealistic”. So we must make do with what passes for “realistic”. A scheme run by incompetent minister with a tendency to lie and a government department in denial, that is absurdly complex and beset by contradictions, that will deprive recipients more severely and that is almost certainly unworkable.

Surely someone has the wit to consider an alternative solution that would make our society more equal and less divided? I hope the Greens at least will stick to the idea and not bow before that wretch Neil. 

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