A number of governments across the globe are looking at introducing different forms of basic income in which each citizen receives a regular, flat unconditional wage from the state, irrespective of their work status.
This income guarantee can act as a simple safety net – knowing that basic essentials such as food and electricity can be afforded, the recipient is better able to consider what waged work to undertake, also feeling secure if jobs are lost or industries sold off due to downsizing or technological development. In a precarious job market, those receiving the stipend may further choose to pursue retraining and studying opportunities, or improve their work-life balance, finding more time for volunteering or family care.
Paid to individuals rather than the household, it is argued that a ‘UBI’ (universal basic income) could replace the British-style means-tested welfare system – complex, often confusing, costing considerable amounts to administer with billions of pounds of entitlements left unclaimed – whilst reducing inequality and putting an end to extreme destitution, offering a degree of dignity to the poorest in society. Support for the basic income has been voiced across the political spectrum – in Britain, the free-market Adam Smith Institute has called it “better than any of the various welfare systems we have at present” whilst the Green Party adopted plans for a ‘Citizen’s Income’, payable to every woman, man and child, in its General Election manifesto.
There is a rich intellectual history behind the idea of a universal income, from Thomas Paine (who felt that payments should be made “to every person, rich or poor”) to Bertrand Russell (“a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all”). In America, the Republican President Richard Nixon’s administration was the first in the developed world to draw-up plans for a national guaranteed income in its ‘Family Assistance Program’ (though never introduced, measures were passed by a majority in the US House of Representatives).
One of the first places to put this idea into practice was the Canadian city of Dauphin, Manitoba, where citizens in the late 1970s were sent monthly cheques by the Government, dubbed the ‘Mincome’ – extreme poverty was eradicated in the five years this experiment took place, leading to improved health and life chances for residents. From 1982, the state of Alaska has paid an unconditional yearly dividend to all its inhabitants, and in 2004, Brazil became the first country to pass a law for the introduction of a national basic income.
Opponents of the idea have argued that paid work is disincentivised and that free money from the Government could embed a ‘something-for-nothing’ culture among citizens. Nevertheless, feasibility studies and pilot schemes have been drawn-up across Europe – Utrecht and 19 other cities in the Netherlands are giving welfare recipients around £660 per month (any additional income they choose to earn will be added to this); Switzerland will hold a referendum on introducing the basic income for all adults in June; and in 2017 a two-year pilot scheme will see up to 10,000 Finnish adults be given between 550 and 800 euros per month tax-free.