Universal Basic Income (UBI) is not a new idea but has recently gained some credence, with interest in possible pilot studies shown by the Scottish national government and one UK local authority. Many perceive it as an idea whose time has come. Universal Basic Services (UBS), is a newer concept, similar to but different from, UK policies such as the National Health Service. Many supporters of UBI or UBS agree on the basic problems facing society today – presented, for example, in Guy Standing’s Eight Giants, the Manifesto of the Foundational Economy (2020), the Social Determinants of Health Report (2010) and the Marmot Review 10 years On (2020). It is unfortunate that an attitude of ‘you are either for us or against us’ has developed by proponents on both sides of UBI and UBS. This has resulted in some debate, but not in developing a strong coherent policy together.
The goals of UBI and UBS are to improve the conditions of people’s daily lives – the circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age – as well as to tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources.
The aim of this article is to begin a discussion between the proponents of UBI and UBS to identify common ground and to join forces to confront the failed neoliberal financial and social policies of the last few decades. Three crises, financial of 2008, Brexit and Covid-19 have created a unique situation where big change is possible. Climate emergency must be at the forefront of all future policies made to improve people’s lives, including development and support for a new Green Deal.
UBI will give money to individuals on an unconditional basis while with UBS individuals will need to claim money, both guarantee an income. Both envisage that certain benefits (e.g. housing and disability) would remain. Both aim to lift the poorest out of poverty, and to provide a level of security. This freedom will allow self-development and open new choices and opportunities.
How to achieve these goals is where contentions appear. Both approaches demand a high level of state resources, so what to prioritise raises big questions. Deciding level of income and eligibility, are critical questions for both approaches; predicting the effect (and unintended consequences) on, for example, employment, consumerism, individual and collective responsibility, concerns both approaches. UBI and UBS have different underlying philosophical approaches, UBI is based on universality and the individual. UBS has its basis on an improved social wage.
Referred to by many as Basic Income (BI). This policy focuses narrowly on monetary income. UBI is universal, every citizen automatically receiving a basic income, distribution is easy, and bureaucracy reduced to some degree. The role of the state, outside provision of the money, is not stated explicitly. The negative aspects of UBI include promoting individualism as well as reinforcing the current value system: consumerism and money. It is noteworthy that Google’s Foundation is a major funder of GiveDirectly’s UBI pilot while and Silicon Valley Company Y-Combinator is funding a $60 million experiment in UBI, one recognises how UBI supports neoliberal philosophy. UBI does not address the climate emergency directly.
UBS policy is for provision of comprehensive public services according to need not ability to pay, combined with a guaranteed minimum income for all. UBS is based on shared needs, collective responsibility and sustainable development and its proponents consider it part of a Green New Deal. UBS calls for a customised approach to each area of need, with emphasis on devolved and democratic control, active engagement of residents and service users, enforceable rights of access to services, phasing out for-profit provision. The state will have five key roles: ensure equality of access for all, to raise, distribute and invest funds, to set and enforce standards, to provide directly where appropriate, and to support and coordinate a range of service providers across sectors.
I have assumed that the principle of universality remains for both UBI and BI.
Both UBI and UBS support the principle of a guaranteed secure regular income for all. Under UBI money payments are intended to be unconditional, automatic and universal. UBS focuses primarily on enhancing the ‘virtual’ income derived from services which has a substantial value. This ‘virtual’ income is coupled with a guaranteed minimum income which people claim when their income falls below an agreed level of sufficiency.
The cost of providing a sufficient income for all on the one hand and comprehensive services for all on the other is huge. As resources will be limited, some compromises are being sought. For example, some supporters of UBI are currently talking about BI for selected groups only, and UBS supporters are considering a range of ways in which the costs of services can be covered without compromising quality or accessibility for all.
A major issue between UBI and UBS is the universality of UBI, because this requires far more resources than the Minimum Income Guaranteed proposed by UBS.
What are our joint aims?
Expanding in-kind benefits to all is highly redistributive because these services are worth so much more to low-income families, thus providing security and stability. Currently most people are obliged to pay for rent, transport, adult social care, child care, further education and other services.
Both UBI and UBS aim for the creation of new jobs and training. Improving and extending services can help create secure employment at all skills levels. UBI can supplement low and intermittent wages. Will both UBI and UBS be equally successful in developments such as housing with universal access according to need, sustainable energy, a connected transport system reliable and affordable to all, universal free digital communication? The current crises in care for the elderly, disabled and children as well as in healthcare show that reconstruction is essential and the same is true for education. What’s needed here is a principled framework to guide policy and practice.
The aim of this short article is to encourage dialogue and discussion between proponents of UBI (or BI) and UBS. The advocates of both UBI and UBS have many of the same goals. It behoves all those involved to reach out and find a common path. Compromise in some detail while maintaining the underlying principles I hope will be the guiding light. We need to emerge with an agreed policy to counteract the current political shambles and insecurity and prepare us for the increase in unemployment and financial crisis that will follow from Covid-19 and Brexit.
If we hope to reduce inequality and poverty, we need to identify the areas where we can work together, encouraging less confrontational discussion.
Isky Gordon is emeritus professor in the developmental imaging and biophysics section at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, London.