Time for a Universal Basic Income?

Source: Investor’s Business Daily

During the last six months or so, I have paid more attention to the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a potential central element of a future-oriented social protection system, implementable on a scale from the local to the global and all points in-between. Although this demands a separate text, I continue to believe that the nation state, the traditional scale for social policy measures, is both far too small – welfare must be a global concern – and far too large – needs must be responded to locally – to implement genuinely progressive social policies. In the current extraordinary crisis, probably the most open of historical situations that we have ever seen, revisiting UBI is important, both in terms of actions to respond to the immediate situation and thinking beyond it. This brief introduction is offered humbly to stimulate, not foreclose, debate, acknowledging that many people are far too preoccupied with, literally, surviving, at this moment, and that the future is not only uncertain, but uncertain in ways we barely have the capacity to imagine.  

Beyond the dominant concern that UBI would destroy incentives to work, a fallacy already destroyed by responses to this crisis, one of the main objections to UBI has always been that, set at levels that could make an appreciable difference, it would simply cost too much. Many have argued that UBI would ‘crowd out’ other forms of socially useful spending, on essential services such as healthcare, for example. And yet, governments around the world are responding to this crisis by freeing up funds at a level that was unthinkable only weeks ago. Of course, far too often, the priorities for these funds are inverse to any logic of well-being, targeting banks and businesses primarily, with some ‘trickling down’ to some workers in the formal economy. Although, in some policy packages, traditional conditionalities, time limits and restrictions all too familiar to those of us who study social policy have been set aside, new exclusions are occurring, whether by design or by accident, with far too many people simply ‘falling through the cracks’ and receiving no compensation for loss of income whatsoever.   

So, what, exactly, is UBI and what might be some of the advantages and disadvantages of its introduction? UBI is best defined as “a periodic cash payment delivered to all unconditionally without a means-test or work requirement“ (Basic Income Earth Network, https://basicincome.org). It is perhaps the simplest, most direct, and most efficient form of basic income security imaginable especially if ‘all’ includes anyone within a particular territory or jurisdiction. It delinks ‘income’ from ‘work’, however defined, and includes children, retired persons, migrants and asylum seekers, those who take on unpaid caring roles, mainly women of course, perform voluntary work, or are in education and training. In a crisis such as this, of course, it would support those who cannot work at this time, including those in the so-called ‘gig economy’. Introduced alongside progressive taxation and targeted assistance for those in greatest need, it could, at least in the short term, reduce the combined stresses of economic and social insecurity.

Although not a feminist policy per se, the introduction of UBI could help to erode the arbitrary and reactionary division between supposed ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. Freeing working-class women from economic insecurity could be a necessary, although of course far from a sufficient condition, for greater political participation, as Schulz has argued. Its greatest contribution, however, is surely in terms of beginning to value, at least in monetary terms, unpaid care work and household labour, with even ‘wages for housework’, a demand made by one strand of the feminist movement, transformed in the context of a basic income for all. UBI could, at least, be a tool in the struggle to redefine the relationship between productive and reproductive labour, as well as between work and leisure, providing it is paid to individuals not households, of course. 

In the longer-term context of the climate crisis, UBI could break the relentless, fundamentalist neoliberal, insistence on productivity and growth, suggesting that humans have intrinsic worth and should have a basic income enabling choices based on their interests and capabilities. At the same time, UBI is not well suited, in and of itself, to break the equally pernicious link between ‘money’ and ‘stuff’ (consumer goods, for example), and might promote short-term individual and household consumption at the expense of community investment and mutual solidarity. Other actions will be needed, together with UBI, to ensure eco-social policies, promoting degrowth, circular economies, lower emissions, an insistence on renewables, sustainable transport solutions, localized food production and consumption, and care.

In what used to be considered ‘normal’ times, the most important argument against UBI, particularly in the fragile and austerity-ridden welfare states of Southern and South Eastern Europe, is that it could take attention, and resources, away from the absolute priority of restoring and improving accessible public services for all who need them. The current crisis has already shown how decades of cutting these services, introducing formal and informal marketization, treating health and welfare as commodities in effect, has left people exposed to massive risk. Universal, free health care on paper means nothing in reality when demand outstrips supply, and decisions that are literally ‘a matter of life and death’ have to be made, even if the people making those decisions are immune to pressure based on how much money, or what ‘veze’, patients have. It has long been a social policy maxim that welfare systems need to be both strong enough and flexible enough to respond to ‘new risks’. Of course, any healthcare system would have been severely tested in this crisis, but prior investments in health infrastructure, in health personnel, and in preventive and community health, would have made a difference.

A more fundamental question is not about restoring ‘welfare states’ but of building interlocking ‘welfare societies’. The obligations of states or state-like actors to guarantee social rights, redistribute income from the rich to the poor, and ensure equality across gender, ‘race’, class, age, ability and sexuality have never been fully achieved, and remain matters of struggle not consensus. In this sense, universal basic income might be too ‘basic’, especially if it is not combined with universal quality services. Remembering that states are as much, if not more, about ‘control’ than ‘care’, and that the state is a semi-absent actor, as Azra Hromadžić phrases it – ambiguous and unpredictable in Čarna Brković’s terms – means that it cannot be relied upon, whether in so-called ‘normal’ or ‘crisis’ times. Grassroots initiatives are likely to play an important role in mitigating this crisis, even more than they did when the imposition of austerity on countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal meant that the only effective welfare was provided by networked communities.

Relating UBI to the specific challenges for social policy in post-socialist societies is not at all simple, given their heterogeneity and the variegated impacts, including the contemporary use and misuse, of diverse historical legacies. In much of Eastern Europe, social protection was closely tied to processes of industrialization and reproduced productivist hierarchies in terms of rights through employment. It can even be argued that post-socialist, clientelistic and nationalist divisions between ‘protected insiders’ and ‘abandoned outsiders’, have their origins in socialist welfare. Cash benefits, insurance-based and targeted, have tended to be developed at the expense of services but, as The Future of the Welfare State Network has argued for the Western Balkans, universal child benefits and social pensions, for those over 65, mainly women, who have worked in the home and/or in subsistence agriculture, two crucial elements towards a UBI scheme, would have made a significant difference, even before this crisis. Working ‘in and against’ the state for prefigurative social policies has long been a central platform of a critical social policy. The idea of UBI not only diminishing economic insecurity but also contributing to an unleashing of a spirit of care, of reciprocity, of attentiveness to the needs of others, replacing the myth of individual responsibility with a sense of our mutual interconnectedness may not be as utopian as it sounds, and is a terrain of struggle that will be of immense importance in the future.   

Paul Stubbs is a UK-born sociologist who has lived and worked in Zagreb, Croatia since 1994. His work focuses on policy translation, international actors in social policy and, increasingly, on the history of Yugoslav socialism, social welfare and the Non-Aligned Movement. His latest edited book (with Sofia A, Tatiana Chubarova and Bob Deacon) Social Policy, Poverty and Inequality in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union will be published by IBIDEM in September 2019.

References

Čarna Brković (2017) Managing Ambiguity: how clientelism, citizenship and power shape personhood in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Oxford: Berghahn books

Future of the Welfare State in the Western Balkans (2018) ‘Future-Oriented Welfare State Policies in the Western Balkans’, http://futureofthewelfarestate.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/WFS-Platform-Future-OrientedWelfareStatePoliciesInTheWesternBalkans.pdf   

Azra Hromadžić (2015) ‘“Where were they until now?”: ageing, care and abandonment in a Bosnian town’ (Gdje su oni bili dosad? Starenje, skrb i napuštanje u jednom bosanskom gradu), Etnološka tribina 45, https://hrcak.srce.hr/index.php?show=clanak&id_clanak_jezik=220302

Patricia Schulz (2017) ‘Universal basic income in a feminist perspective and gender analysis’, Global Social Policy 17(1); 89-92.

 

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