UBI: just one tool in the box?

Universal Basic Income may just be one tool at our disposal, says Judy Seymour, member of North Tyneside Green Party. Exploring three alternative systems, she outlines how their use in cooperation could create an ‘economic model fit for purpose’.

Coins scattered on a table
Coins scattered on a table
Judy Seymour

“The decolonization of the imagination is the most subversive form (of action) there is… Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless” – Walidah Imarisha.

On hearing about Universal Basic Income (UBI), I had an Imarisha moment – unconditional income for every citizen as a right and an end to absolute poverty, whoa, eyes wide open! But then I discovered that right-wing parties are enthusiasts too. That can’t be right, can it? Well yes, it can – but the interest for neo-liberals is less in ending poverty and more in the rolling back of the state. Introduce UBI and the job is done – who needs public services if you can afford to pay?

Not being in favour of policies that privatise public responsibility, I started to doubt. As other problems emerged, I began thinking that UBI mightn’t be such a good idea. Or, maybe, UBI is one tool in the box and others are out there. Maybe, by fitting them together, we could create the systems transformation we need and long for, without fearing its hijack by free marketeers?

I’m not an economist by training, but I like the idea of citizen economists. I believe that in the GPEW we have the opportunity to think critically, think boldly, and think as citizen economists. An economic model fit for purpose is more than overdue and we really need to get it right – so can we talk?

For starters, here are three post-UBI ideas I like – I’m treating the benefits of UBI as read.

Universal Basic Services (UBS)

These would be health, education, housing and social welfare services. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) proposes expanding UBS to include childcare, social care and increased provision of social housing. Free access to these services amounts to ‘a social wage’ – for example, the NEF estimates that re-imagining childcare as a universal public service would effectively add £7,500 pa to the incomes of two-child families.

Services would be delivered through the public sector, by worker-owned co-operatives or private enterprises, and would always be compliant with public sector standards and conditions of service.

Choices made locally meeting local needs – another benefit of UBS. Most jobs in public services are low carbon – analysis shows that investing in social care is 30 per cent less polluting in terms of greenhouse gas than the construction industry.

Investing in UBS would also strengthen our sense of ‘we’ as opposed to ‘me’, which to my mind makes communities resilient – something we need as we confront the climate and environmental crises. Investing in these services would redistribute collective wealth in favour of people with the least income, whilst also fitting with the GPEW climate and environmental agenda and being a helpful ally in making a just transition. Imagine!

In contrast, UBI is a consumption model. It’s a cash-based system with appealing universality. But, because it’s universal, no matter if your name is Richard Branson or my next-door neighbour, all would receive it. That’s nice, but it doesn’t redistribute wealth. It does put cash in the hand – for many this would represent a welcome increase in spending power, but in terms of the behaviours we need to shift if we’re to move to a more sustainable way of living, it’s not helpful. It’s also worth remembering that once the basics are met, it’s wealth inequalities that make people unhappy.

Public Sector Job Guarantee

The path from Universal Basic Services to a Public Sector Job Guarantee is a direct one and a game-changer. Imagine – we could create a guaranteed job in care services, caring for people and the environment. A job with a real living wage which the private sector would have to match to attract workers. A partnership between central and local government, empowering local communities to make decisions that meet local circumstances and empowering the worker who no longer has to work in the Gig economy unless they want to.

An often-quoted strength of UBI is that it liberates people to make choices about how they use their time. Well, the times in my life when I’ve been least happy are those when I’ve been unemployed. Of course, not getting paid causes great anxiety, but work is more than cash. It’s an anchor providing a shape to the day and the week. It connects me to other people, gives me a sense of purpose and self-worth, and is how I participate and contribute. Take those things away from me and not only am I broke and anxious about money, but I’m also wondering – what’s the point of me?

Shouldn’t meaningful work with decent pay and conditions be a right?

Of course, my experience of work is a privileged one. And when we imagine having the time and freedom that UBI would give us to decide how we want to spend it, I think our mode of thinking is also privileged. Those of us with ‘social capital’ can mobilise our connections to networks and information to create opportunities. But if you live on an impoverished social housing estate in a family that’s not known paid employment for three generations – I’m not so sure what social capital you have, and therefore I don’t see disadvantaged citizens benefitting without strategic intervention and support.

Who could provide this? Voluntary sector development organisations have worked strategically for decades. They create the infrastructure through which change happens – the partnerships that generate opportunities, the training and mentoring, the adherence to standards in terms of safeguarding, respect for diversity, inclusion and equal treatment.

But the voluntary sector has been utterly hollowed out by a decade of austerity. The infrastructure at the local community level is threadbare – connections to points of influence severely weakened and promises of agency an empty slogan. If UBI is to come good with expanding opportunities for meaningful citizenship through volunteering, the infrastructure to enable it to happen would have to be rebuilt. UBS could help do it.

A living income

What if you can’t work? The goal of the Living Income Campaign is to ensure everyone can afford ‘the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society’ regardless of circumstances.

There are overlaps with UBI, for example, both aim to empower. A living income sets a level of income sufficient to meet everyday needs and below which no one can fall, based on the independently assessed Minimum Income Standard and overseen by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This is reviewed annually by members of the public working with academics. As the campaign states, it will require ‘a blended social security system, combining new universal payments with stronger need-based payments’.

A guaranteed living income and universal basic services go hand in hand. Add a basic public sector job guarantee and you have a system for wellbeing guaranteeing the rent, providing equal access to essential basic services and giving you the means to participate in creating a sustainable and socially just way of life. Now that’s taking back control!

Imagine UBI and the door to transformational policies opens – look at how they work together if aimed strategically and the picture of that transformation comes into focus.

Citizen economists – what do you think?