Universal services more effective than a Universal Basic Income, argues new report

New research finds that expanding access and broadening provision of Universal Basic Services would be of greatest value to people in the lowest income groups.

Laurie Macfarlane
16 May 2019, 9.05am
Image: HM Treasury, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Strengthening and extending universal services would be a more effective way of tackling global poverty and improving wellbeing than a universal basic income (UBI), according to a report by the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP).

The report, ‘Universal Basic Services: Theory and Practice’, finds that expanding access and broadening provision of Universal Basic Services (UBS) into new areas including childcare, adult social care, transport and digital information would be of greatest value to people in the lowest income groups.

Access to public services can reduce income inequalities by providing a ‘social wage’ that is worth more to people in the lowest income groups, offering a more targeted approach than UBI. Such services, including those historically protected such as access to quality education and healthcare, bring intrinsic benefits without which individuals and families are less likely to be able to meet their own needs.

The authors of the report – Anna Coote, Pritika Kasliwal and Andrew Percy – argue that UBS would be cheaper to implement than a UBI, which guarantees a basic income to everyone regardless of status. UBS would cost around £42 billion, which is 2.3% of the UK’s GDP and less than 10% of the cost of typical basic income schemes, according to figures provided by the authors.

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The paper argues that UBS would be more effective at creating the foundations for a society that can live sustainably, both financially and environmentally, than UBI. For example, tackling climate change requires public services such as transport to be made freely available to those who need them the most in order to create the necessary transformational change required.

Andrew Percy, Director of the UCL IGP Social Prosperity Network said: “If we are going to change our lifestyles to comply with the planet’s boundaries, then universal access to basic public services must be the foundation of 21st century welfare that delivers real social security, allows people to make meaningful choices about their work, and can be delivered in an affordable and practical way.”

The work has been welcomed by campaigners, however some have questioned the report's presentation of UBS as a competing alternative to UBI.

Will Stronge, co-director of Autonomy, an independent UK think-tank focusing on issues relating to the future of work, said: "We welcome this report which highlights the importance of universal services. But to claim that basic services and basic income are incompatible policies is a false dichotomy. We don’t argue for the existence of the NHS as an alternative to Job Seekers Allowance, and nor should we consider services and income to be mutually exclusive.”

"It is obvious that an income is in fact very different to a state service; money is the universal equivalent, the medium of exchange in our societies, which gives it a different kind of capacity than a particular service would. Having guaranteed cash in the pocket also does one thing that things like free transport and healthcare do not: it partially separates income from a job, meaning more power to say no to employers and to renegotiate working conditions."

Mathew Lawrence, director of Common Wealth, a think tank focusing on new ownership models, said: "Today’s report demonstrates that UBS can provide the building blocks for a good life for all. New models of ownership will be vital to secure the freedom and security that everyone deserves. However, we believe that UBI can still play a role in such a vision, decommodifying labour, increasing autonomy, and empowering ordinary people. How it is designed will be crucial. Done well, UBI and UBS together can complement and expand equality and freedom, not compete.”

The report is the second from the IGP’s Social Prosperity Network on developing ideas for a sustainable welfare state suitable for the 21st century. The launch of the report marks the start of a year of discussions with academics and researchers, who hope to have a policy template ready for implementation by the end of their talks in 2020. The report was supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Edit: this article was updated on 19 May 2019 to reflect the fact that the costings for UBI and UBS stated in the article were not included in the report, but were provided by the authors in a separate press release.

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