I’ve always sat on the fence when it comes to universal basic income (UBI). There’s much that is attractive in an approach that, in its pure form, does away with means-testing and contribution tests to guarantee every individual a basic income in their own right. I’ve thus also always welcomed the debate about basic principles that proposals for a UBI encourage while not actually signing up to any of those proposals.
In part my reluctance to sign up in support, has reflected an ambivalence around the total absence of any conditions attached to entitlement. On the one hand this absence represents the absolute guarantee of security that is so attractive and it challenges the contemporary fetishisation of paid work as the citizenship responsibility. It leaves it to individuals to decide how they divide up their time between paid work, caring, community and citizenship-focused activities, education, creativity, family and friends, leisure pursuits or just being, without being dictated to by an intrusive state. On the other hand, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams warn in Inventing the Future, the work ethic is deeply ingrained into our identities. Even for someone such as myself, critical of the fetishisation of paid work, it’s not so easy simply to shrug it off. When Srnicek and Williams call for ‘the right to be lazy’ I find myself recoiling at the idea that other people should be required to subsidise that right.
That’s why I have found the idea of a ‘participation income’ a potentially attractive compromise. Put forward by the Commission on Social Justice and, more recently, the late Tony Atkinson, it would allow for a more inclusive form of conditionality, based on making a social contribution, than do the rules currently governing entitlement to social security. As well as paid work or job search, participation would include education, training, caring or formalised voluntary work.
My ambivalence about a total lack of conditionality underlies some of my (and others’) practical political concerns too. In a political and economic culture, which places such stress on ‘something for something’, how likely is it that UBI would gain the necessary political support? Without such support I’ve had two main worries. One is that if progressives focus all their energies on calling for a UBI, they suck energy out of more immediate, potentially more achievable reforms, which might in a more modest way help put the security back into social security. Alternatively, if UBI were implemented, I feared it would be at a level that provided an even less adequate income than now for those without other means.
My other major source of ambivalence lies in what UBI means from a feminist perspective. In their Compass report, Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley rightly argue that, by treating women as individuals rather than members of households, it potentially offers greater economic independence and would make it easier to escape abusive relationships. They suggest that ‘importantly, a UBI would both acknowledge and provide financial support for the mass of unpaid work, disproportionately undertaken by women, in childcare, care for the elderly and voluntary help in the wider community’ (p10). They are valid points. But the authors ignore the case against UBI put by some feminists. It doesn’t value care work as such because it provides financial support whether or not care work is being undertaken in the home. And without other measures, designed to shift radically the gendered division of labour between paid work and care and close the continued gender pay gap, it could undermine mothers’ and carers’ position in the labour market by encouraging them to stay at home full time. This is perhaps less of an issue than in the past now that women are more firmly established in the labour market. Nevertheless in the context of universal credit, which creates a major disincentive for second earners, it is not to be discounted. So the case for a UBI should be combined with measures to encourage men to take on more of the role of caring through for instance enhanced parental leave earmarked for them and with a call for a shorter working week so that both women and men can more easily combine paid work and unpaid care work supplemented by a UBI. Such an approach also offers a riposte to those who argue that UBI is simply a palliative designed to sugar the pill for those thrown on to the scrap heap in a future world without sufficient paid work for all.
It’s partly the prospect of such a world in the face of automation that has led many to argue that UBI is an idea whose time has come. I’m not sure that it’s sensible to base the case for UBI primarily on this scenario; it can divert the argument into whether or not it’s likely to materialise. Whereas it’s possible to argue the case for UBI on the basis of today’s labour market which is increasingly failing to provide adequate security, as detailed by Michael Orton in his Compass report. The social security system, which was designed on the assumption that people are either in full time work or out of work, are out of sync universal credit notwithstanding. And this is one reason why I have grown more sympathetic to the calls for a UBI. Another is that most proponents now acknowledge that any UBI introduced today would have to complement rather than replace existing benefits. While this makes it less attractive from the perspective of simplicity, it allays my fears that people without other means would be left worse off than now. Thus for all my ambivalence, I am coming round to the idea of a UBI as a means of ensuring everyone a modicum of basic security in an increasingly insecure world.
Ruth Lister chairs the Compass Management Committee. She’s a Labour peer and Emeritus Professor at Loughborough University.
This piece is part of our new blog series Universal Basic Income: Security for the Future. You can read the other articles here.