Universal Basic Income (UBI), while having several differing strands of thought among its proponents, is in essence the proposal to introduce a single non-means tested, unconditional flat payment to all citizens regardless of employment status.1 Luke Martinelli provides a useful summary:
Payments are made automatically to all; they are universal, applying to the entire population. Eligibility is not withdrawn as individuals’ financial circumstances change (as in means-tested systems), it is not subject to the contributory principle (as in the case of social insurance schemes), nor are behavioural requirements (such as the requirement to look for work) imposed on recipients. Finally, in most conceptualisations, payments are made on an individual rather than household basis and so are not affected by marital status or family composition… In other words, as a result of these characteristics, payments are unconditional.2
It is an idea that has steadily been gaining traction internationally on both sides of the political divide over the past few years.
Guy Standing, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, is one of the main advocates of UBI in the UK. He laid out his case in the 2017 book Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen. The book gives a grand vision of UBI, asserting that, by reducing chronic economic and social insecurity, it could be a part of the solution not just to poverty but also to everything from resource wars to the climate crisis, to the rise of Trumpian populism.3 These points are made alongside a moral philosophical case claiming a heritage including Thomas More’s Utopia and Tom Paine’s Agrarian Justice. In keeping with this, for Standing: “The thrill lies in the potential to advance full freedom and social justice, and the values of work and leisure over the dictates of labour and consumption”.4
In Britain, UBI has emerged as a key component within efforts to develop an alternative vision for social security. In 2016 both the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, passed motions endorsing basic income.5
The Labour Party’s 2019 election manifesto declared that if elected they would scrap the Tory’s universal credit scheme and: “Explore other innovative ways of responding to low pay, including a pilot of Universal Basic Income”.6 Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell also discussed universal basic income in an interview with The Independent on the party’s “most radical manifesto ever”.7 In Scotland, four local authorities have bid for funds to pilot UBI schemes with support from Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Green Party and, in one case, Conservative councillors. Senior city councillors in Sheffield have subsequently committed to ensure a UBI pilot “can be implemented successfully”.8
By contrast, the Conservative Party at national level remains heavily opposed to the idea, fervently sticking to its commitment to reducing claimant numbers and its drive to privatise and reshape the welfare state. It plans to increase rather than remove conditionality—the idea that social security claimants must commit to “doing” in return for state-funded support with deemed non-compliance resulting in the sanctioning of payments.
While right wing libertarians see UBI as a means to eradicate the entire welfare state—including free healthcare—its supporters on the left argue it has the potential to free workers from wage labour and foster individual creativity and fulfilment. This article examines some of the arguments in favour of UBI, and shows that adopting the policy would be a major step backwards for the left.
The rise of a bad idea
For those on the left attracted to the idea of a UBI, the World Bank’s draft World Development Report for 2019 provides good reason to be cautious.9 The document clearly articulates the link between intensification of the neoliberal agenda and provision of a basic income, putting forward a policy programme of extensive labour deregulation including lower minimum wages, flexible dismissal procedures and zero-hours contracts. These would be compensated in part by a basic income “modest in size” so as to “be complementary to work” and financed largely by regressive consumption taxes (ie increased VAT).10 The study warns that care must be taken in scrapping existing benefits. But given recent experiences in Britain of the reckless dismantling of the welfare state without regard for human cost this does little to reassure.
Moreover, the approach taken by the World Bank in affirming the importance of work as a complement to healthcare and education in the production of “human capital” has worrying echoes of the mantra that “work is good for you” reinforced throughout Tory welfare reform policies since 2010. These have caused harm on such a scale that in 2016 the UN Disability Committee found the threshold for grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights had been met.11
Within the UK, UBI is being presented as a solution to a number of modern economic and political problems, including the need to find an alternative to the considerable and well-evidenced failings of the current benefit system. Given the prominence of that line of reasoning, it is notable how little consideration UBI supporters have given to its implications for groups such as disabled people who are disproportionately reliant on the current social security system.12
UBI is not a new idea but over recent years has gained significant global currency, becoming the focus of numerous studies and worldwide trials. But even before the pilots began in Scotland, first minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon publicly questioned the feasibility of the idea.13 Recently abandoned pilots in other developed countries focused primarily on incentivising employment and were met with opposition from anti-austerity campaigners: the version of UBI trialled by Finland’s right-wing government was described as a “UBI-as-workhouse nightmare”,14 while opponents of Ontario’s guaranteed minimum income pilot stated that Basic Income (BI) is “being developed as a measure of neoliberal attack that should be opposed” and “the hope that there is any realistic chance of ensuring a truly adequate, universal payment that isn’t financed by undermining other vital elements of social provision, is misplaced”.15
Conditionality and the associated sanctions on claimants, which often reduce an individual’s income to zero, have been further and further intensified the longer the Tories have been in power.16 This trajectory is set to continue with the roll out of Universal Credit, extending the reach of benefit sanctions to those in part-time work not deemed to be looking hard enough for additional work, as well as the introduction of mandatory activities for all disabled people, including those with high support needs and terminal illness and with very few exemptions.
With a social security system increasingly designed to deny eligibility and punish claimants, there is an obvious attraction to the idea of UBI as an automatic payment administered without assessment. Supporters argue that with everyone, regardless of income status or disability, in receipt of a universal payment, this could lead to the de-stigmatisation of social security, ending the scapegoating of benefit claimants.
However, if we look beyond the basic concept of UBI at what the detail of implementation would mean, we see a more complicated and potentially regressive picture. The Citizens’ Income Trust, one of the major supporters of a basic (or “citizens” income) in the UK, now advocate that both disability and housing benefits remain outside a model of UBI. But this would mean continuing assessments and, potentially, conditionality for disabled people. Concerns have also been raised in a number of articles that funding a UBI would entail cuts to benefits and services that “vulnerable” groups including disabled people now receive.17
Neoliberal versions of UBI promoted by right-wing economists and politicians offer a stark warning about the dangers of implementing it. Paying each person a minimum basic income rather than investing in a living wage and social protection is seen as a way of “saving money” and reducing the size of the state and public services. This is why Sam Bowman, executive director of the pro-free market Adam Smith Institute, wrote in 2013: “The British government spends more on welfare than it does on anything else apart from healthcare… The ideal welfare system is a basic income, replacing the existing anti-poverty programmes the government carries out”.18
In the United States, Charles Murray has proposed an annual unconditional grant of $10,000 for every adult while scrapping the rest of the welfare state, including Social Security and Medicare.19 Milton Friedman advocated a similar system called Negative Income Tax. Those who earned below a certain income threshold would receive money back from the government instead of paying any income taxes, but all other existing welfare programmes would be abolished. The implications of such proposals on those with the greatest needs, including disabled people, would be devastating. As pernicious as our social security system has already become, a right-wing version of UBI would mean an even more serious and dramatic regression of living standards.
UBI has been credited with being able to achieve all sorts of progressive changes in society such as the chimera of balancing the economy, replacing incomes lost through automation and leading us towards a workless future. These abstract visions tend to have little basis in prevailing material conditions.20 Moreover, as socialists in Germany have argued, it is irrelevant that left advocates of an “emancipatory” UBI have ideologically different aims to right-wing proponents—their support can still be used to take forward what ends up in implementation as an intensified programme of social cuts. Their conclusion is that the demand for UBI is not just an absolute dead-end, but a dangerous wrong turn.21
There is no justification for risking opening the door to an intensified neoliberal agenda through support for a UBI. As Michael Roberts argues, the demand for a UBI is not radical enough.22 It leaves in place and therefore leaves us subject to power structures that depend upon exploitation and oppression. Instead we need to concentrate our struggle on demands for a living wage, workers’ rights, secure employment and adequate social protection for all. Pilot schemes for UBI, where they have been carried out, have highlighted some of its limitations.
Worldwide UBI pilots
The past few years have seen UBI pilots announced across the globe, such that Standing dubbed 2016 “the year of the pilot”.23 However, few of these manifest every characteristic of a basic income and to date there is no precedent for replacing an existing complex social security system such as we have in Britain with a UBI. The 2019 World Development Report states that: “For the moment, a true UBI is largely a theoretical proposition”.24
Examples cited by UBI supporters, including pilots in Madhya Pradesh in India and, historically, Manitoba province in Canada, as well as partial schemes operated in Alaska and Iran, are limited in their applicability. They tell us little more than that giving money to people is popular and that decreasing poverty produces positive outcomes. More significantly, trials in Finland and Canada demonstrate how UBI can be used to fulfil a neoliberal agenda focused on pushing unemployed workers into poorly paid and insecure work. Models linked to the forthcoming Scottish pilots indicate that disability benefits will be retained alongside a basic income while Sturgeon’s advisors have warned that public money would be better spent on those most in need.
Two pilots in Madhya Pradesh launched in 2010 produced positive social and economic outcomes for the recipients, with disabled people benefiting more than others through greater access to food, medical assistance and autonomy as well as enabling some to become economically active.25 But this is hardly surprising given that many of those benefiting had received no previous support: only a minority of low income households in all 20 of the villages where pilots took place had a BPL (Below Poverty Line) or Antyodaya Ration Card, and some of the poorest households had no poverty card (a basic document giving access to subsistence handouts) at all. Unconditional payments enabled disabled recipients to move from dependency on family members to being able to meet their own basic needs. But giving something to people who previously had nothing is very different to what would happen with the introduction of a UBI in Britain to replace existing social security payments.
A pilot conducted in Manitoba province in Canada in the 1970s was credited with eliminating poverty from the trial saturation site, the small town of Dauphin. Here, in a programme known as “Mincome”, a guaranteed income was provided to those who had fallen out of work with 50 percent of every Canadian dollar earned on returning to work clawed back. It stood out from similar North American projects at the time because it didn’t exclude older people or disabled people from eligibility. The aim was to test whether giving unconditional payments to top up the incomes of the working poor would disincentivise paid employment. The trial found that working hours did not significantly decrease, although it can be argued that these drops may be artificially low because participants knew the guaranteed income was temporary.
The Conservative government that took power provincially in 1977—and federally in 1979—had no intention of rolling the programme out more widely and shut the project down. No final report was ever compiled. A recent survey of the data as it related to other services in Dauphin found a significant reduction in hospitalisation, especially for admissions related to mental health, and in accidents and injuries relative to the matched comparison group.26 It is again unsurprising that increasing the incomes of the poor leads to improved health outcomes, and again the findings are too limited as an evidence base to justify the replacement of existing social security systems with a UBI. They do support the idea that ensuring the population has an adequate income will produce cost savings in areas such as healthcare.
There are two global instances of partial UBI schemes where citizens receive unconditional cash payments that are often cited by basic income supporters: Alaska and Iran.27 But these have limited relevance to Britain, where taxation would be the most likely source of funding. In Alaska, citizens each get a variable amount each year. Between 2010 and 2012 it averaged around $1,100 (about £700) annually. This money comes from taxed oil windfalls via the Alaska Permanent Fund. Iran similarly uses oil revenues to subsidise a cash payment of about $33 a month given unconditionally to most of the population. The payment has partially replaced heavy subsidies on basic commodities such as bread and fuel including petrol. Neither programme goes anywhere near providing a living for their recipients and they are not a replacement for safety net support.28
Basic Income pilots recently taken forward by neoliberal governments in Finland and Canada exemplify how UBI supports negative employment trends such as low pay and insecure employment and can facilitate exploitation.29
In Ontario, 70 percent of those tested in the pilot were low waged workers and earned income was deducted at a rate of 50 percent. (This is technically an example of Negative Income Tax rather than UBI). The amount paid under the pilots was insufficient to live on, demonstrating use of UBI as a top-up for low paying employers, effectively subsiding business from general tax revenues and making it easier for employers to lower wages. Participants were subject to fewer conditions in return for BI payments but would lose other support and services. A whole range of additional entitlements benefiting disabled people were also lost including the Special Diet Allowance, which provides additional income on the recommendation of medical providers, medical transportation assistance and mobility aids.
Campaigners pointed out that if the Ontario government had been genuinely concerned about poverty and disability, it would have urgently reversed the 22 percent welfare benefit cuts made by the Mike Harris government in 1995.30 It should “Raise the Rates”, rather than spend years consulting and testing a basic income.31
The Finnish experiment has received positive press in Britain, focused in particular on the removal of bureaucratic intrusion and conditionality on job seekers.32 But left wing commentators in Finland are critical of its effects. The trial took place between 2017 and early 2019. It involved 2,000 mandatory participants randomly selected from unemployment rolls and paid €560 (£500) per month. This effectively replaced the payments from the existing Finnish basic unemployment allowance and labour market subsidy.33 But participants continued to receive the payments if they found work.34
For the Finnish government, UBI was about increasing employment35—which was a key Centre Party manifesto commitment in the 2015 election—and encouraging workers to take bad jobs with low pay. Low-paid workers or adults out of the labour force for reasons other than unemployment were deliberately excluded from the pilot. Alongside trialling UBI, the Centre Party set out to achieve its policy goals by other measures, including reducing the country’s unit labour costs and increasing the retirement age.36 Its version of UBI was a way to replace social protections with minimum payments while dismantling the welfare state through accelerated privatisation of health and social care.
If rolled out, this UBI has the potential to reduce the income security of unemployed workers while reducing the strength of trade unions, whose collective bargaining power has remained higher than in the UK. One of the reasons for comparatively high union density in Finland is because workers must be union members to be covered by an unemployment fund. Replacing the current earnings-related unemployment benefit with a meagre UBI would thus reduce the income security of unemployed workers and reduce the strength of the unions. Self-employed workers were among the voter base in favour of UBI. However, adjustments to the social security system to address this problem could be adopted without a UBI and its regressive dangers.
Left wing commentators in Finland have described this as “a cautionary tale for basic income proponents on the left”, evidencing how support for UBI on the basis that it will deliver progressive outcomes opens the door for the introduction of a scheme “forcing unemployed workers into bad jobs while undermining organised labour, earnings equality and the welfare state”.37 As John Clarke of Ontario Coalition Against Poverty argues: “The neoliberal attack is taking up Basic Income as a weapon. We need to fight it instead of laying down a welcome mat”.38
In the UK, we must not be fooled into seeing the Finnish experiment as offering a solution to the devastation caused by welfare reform. Aside from the regressive realities of the Finnish scheme, there are considerable differences between the two countries that make it inappropriate to transpose any progressive benefits of the current experiment to the UK. Writing in the Guardian, Ellie Mae O’Hagan warns against a UBI “simply parachuted into a political economy that has been pursuing punitive welfare policies for the last 30 years”.39
UBI as “unworkable” policy: the Scottish example
In September 2017, while launching the SNP’s “Programme for Government”, Sturgeon announced plans for the Scottish government to fund local authorities in order to conduct experiments into a “Citizens’ Basic Income” (CBI).40 This is in line with the SNP’s official position. At its 2016 conference it passed a motion in support of the principle of a universal basic income, stating: “Conference believes that a basic or universal income can potentially provide a foundation to eradicate poverty, make work pay and ensure all our citizens can live in dignity”.41 The motion called for more research into the impact of the policy. Sturgeon’s announcement was welcomed by the think-tank Reform Scotland, which in 2016 published a report making the case for UBI which was heavily influenced by Green Party policy.42
The four councils set to run the pilot schemes with the support of a £250,000 grant from the Scottish government (Fife, North Ayrshire, Glasgow and Edinburgh) were identified by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), which published a report in 2015 calling for local UBI experiments.43
The models to be adopted by each of the pilot areas have yet to be announced but will likely require a two-year lead in and last for around two years, following principles for UBI pilots outlined by Standing.44 These include the principle that pilots be conducted on a saturation basis involving all residents. This will provide a more universal test of the impacts of UBI than either the Finnish or Ontario trials which selected particular groups of people to test. Another key principle promoted by Standing is that people should be no worse off than if they were in receipt of means-tested benefits. But based on the detail of models promoted by UBI proponents involved in the pilots as discussed below, it is unclear how this can be achieved. A research paper prepared for Fife councillors concerning plans for their local pilot explains that most models set the level of basic income at £73.10 for working age adults. There is no detail on what benefits will be replaced but the paper is clear that: “housing and disability benefits payments would need to remain and be kept separate” and that “means-testing of benefits would continue, but the amount received by each household or individual would be recalculated to account for the amount of basic income”. The paper presents the possibility of enabling people to choose not to work as a positive feature of CBI but this is unlikely on a weekly income of under £75. As one member of the Fife People’s Panel commented: “£73.10 per week + benefits is not enough to live on”.45
Glasgow Council has commissioned the RSA to develop its proposals for a Basic Income pilot. The RSA Basic Income model proposes £71 per week for working age adults, which appears to replace Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).46 Although housing and non-means tested disability benefits, including Personal Independence Payment, will be retained, this nevertheless represents a loss for disabled people in the ESA support group. Modelling of the RSA scheme undertaken by the Scottish government’s Housing and Social Justice Directorate estimates that over 10 percent of households in the lowest decile in Scotland would experience negative financial impacts, over 30 percent in the second-lowest and just under 50 percent in the third-lowest. Most households would be losing in the region of 20 percent of their income.
The RSA report strongly argues for the importance of doing away with the devastating impacts of conditionality and sanctioning. But it is also clear in its primary intention of incentivising employment and making work pay. The RSA proposes to pay no more than a “basic” income in order to ensure that those who are “fit and able to work…would have a very strong incentive to do so”.47 The report states that: “It is Basic Income and Basic Income alone that sends out absolutely clear yet non-coercive signals about the incentive to work”.48
It also suggests design features such as a public “contribution contract” for 18-25 year olds to sign up to committing themselves to learning, working or entrepreneurship in return for their payments,49 and the supplementation of BI payments with offers of sub minimum wage employment in “publicly useful” roles such as “day centre staffing”.50
The report by Reform Scotland “A Basic Income Guarantee” has a more singular focus on the role of UBI in incentivising work. It states that: “Any system that actively discourages work, as the current system does, is in urgent need of an overhaul” and stresses the need for a “safety trampoline” instead of a safety net in order to encourage more people to re-join the workforce or set up new businesses. Furthermore, “the system in place at present actively discourages many to return to work or increase hours” and “this inherent and long-standing problem with the current system is the principal reason for the Basic Income Guarantee”.51
Using proposals from the Scottish Greens as the basis for its financial workings, Reform Scotland suggests a Basic Income could be set at £5,200 per year for adults and £2,600 per year for children, which would replace the personal allowance, tax credits and a number of benefits.52 Under this model, Employment and Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Carer’s Allowance and Personal Independence Payments would all be retained. The cost of this model would be £20.4 billion. Reform Scotland proposes raising all levels of income tax by 8 percent but its calculations for affording the model are still short by some £2 billion. This is substantially more expensive than the RSA model that Sturgeon has already suggested is unfeasible.
In October 2017, Sturgeon, while continuing to support the trials, publicly raised the possibility that CBI might prove unworkable as a policy. Speaking during the Inclusive Growth Conference, she said: “I should stress our work on this is at a very early stage. It might turn out not to be the answer, it might turn out not to be feasible”.53 Her comments followed the publication of one of her briefings obtained by the Scottish Conservative Party via a freedom of information request.54 Attention from the right wing media focused on figures within the briefing taken from RSA’s Basic Income model, which costed implementation at £12.3 billion with a £3.6 billion shortfall, raising the prospect of cuts elsewhere.55 The briefing also highlighted work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which found that CBI would need a tax rate on all earned income of about 40 percent if housing benefit was not included, rising to over 50 percent if it was.
The briefing is strongly critical of CBI, citing potential negative impacts on disabled people and “vulnerable” groups, pointing out how “most governments will not be able to afford both CBI and a generous welfare state.” It states: “The higher the CBI the more likely it is to lift people out of poverty, but the higher the public finance cost to fund it and the harder it would be for government to fund other supportive social policies.” Concerns are raised about the potential of CBI to further entrench inequalities and increased stigmatisation of benefits which will be claimed by a smaller proportion of the population. The briefing concludes that “significant modelling effort would be required to establish levels that did not impact negatively on vulnerable groups.”
UBI and disability benefits
Disabled people have been disproportionately hit by austerity measures and welfare reforms through a deliberate agenda to cut back the various different inter-related social security payments and public services that we depend upon. In a cumulative impact assessment, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found households with more disabled people have higher losses as a percentage of final income due to tax and welfare reforms and other public spending changes.56 The impact is greater in England, at 10.5 percent, than in Scotland or Wales (4.5 to 5 percent) where higher social care spending by the devolved authorities has mitigated some of the effects of Tory policy in Westminster.
Nevertheless, and despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Tories publicly maintain that they are continuing to support “those most in need”. The suffering and avoidable harm that disabled people have gone through over the past nine and a half years demonstrate the devastating effects that an overhaul of the welfare system can cause unless the interests of the poorest and disabled members of society are properly understood and protected. In this context, the introduction of UBI, replacing a targeted system with universal coverage, is likely to entrench growing inequality and the struggle to survive.
Simulations for “full” UBI schemes that would entirely replace the existing social security system in Britain show big losses for disabled people among other groups. Three full UBI schemes examined as part of a study commissioned by the think-tank Compass were simulated on the basis of abolishing all means-tested benefits including ESA, the Severe Disablement Premium and Discretionary Housing Payments with only means-tested Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support retained.57
Although all three schemes also retained Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and Carer’s Allowance as additional to a universal payment, the proposed rate for the UBI of £73.10 per week, equivalent to Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), would be insufficient to compensate people who are out of work long term. JSA is set at a level only able to offer adequate social protection for short periods of time. Disabled people are more likely to be out of work for much longer periods: some 10 percent of unemployed disabled people have been out of work for five years or more, compared with just 3 percent of the non-disabled population; and people in the ESA group are likely to spend around two years out of work.58
Disabled people would not be the only losers. The Compass paper concludes that the three full UBI schemes simulated are not feasible due to severe negative impacts on the poorest households. The proportion of households losing more than a fifth of their income in the bottom decile stands at 18.2, 16.7 and 23 percent respectively for the three schemes. Although there are no separate figures for the impact of poverty on disabled people, all the schemes lead to sharp rises in relative child poverty alongside modest increases in working age adult poverty and increases in pensioner poverty.
Compass, which is in favour of UBI, recommend instead that pilots should be undertaken into modified (or “partial”) UBI schemes where the existing benefits system, both means tested and non-means tested, is retained, in addition to a UBI. For the two modified schemes simulated, the number of households losing income in the lowest two income deciles is considerably lower than for its full UBI models, but does still entail negative financial impacts for 2,376,300 households under Scheme 1 and 1,335,000 for Scheme 2. This is a significant number of the poorest people in society. There is also no information about whether ESA would continue at the newly lowered rate for those in the work-related activity group, a move that was met with widespread opposition, or whether it would be restored to its previous level.59
Given findings such as these, prominent supporters of UBI such as the Citizen’s Income Trust now recommend a partial UBI where disability benefits and housing are retained as separate parallel systems. Given the scale of problems with the existing disability benefits system and the proven harm they are causing to disabled people, this now commonplace sidestepping of the problem shows an astonishing lack of concern from those who claim that UBI will be such a worthy lever for emancipation. This is strong confirmation that UBI offers little solution to the way the social security system is currently failing disabled people. Meanwhile, focusing on the implementation of UBI risks detracting attention and resources from the urgent task of overhauling the disability benefits system and making it fit for purpose.
This failure to address disability issues and the potential implications for disabled people of introducing UBI is further illustrated by approaches to the social care question taken up by UBI advocates. Consider this worrying passage from Standing in reference to the topic of Britain’s ageing society and the increasing cost of providing care:
[Basic Income] can be seen as a means of inducing people to spend more time doing care work… A basic income would enable more people to spend more time in caring for those they love, thereby incidentally reducing pressure on the Treasury to pay for public and private carers. In considering the net cost of a basic income, this expected saving should be factored into the calculations.60
The assertion that cost savings should be factored in strongly implies that recipients would be compelled to care for family members not by the removal of their payments but by the lack of provision of other care options. Such an approach would reduce autonomy and independence for disabled people forced to rely on family rather than being provided with professional support. It would also undermine the existing social care/personal assistance workforce. This example severely dents Standing’s claims that UBI will challenge workfare and unpaid work done by women in the home.
Alongside an adequate standard of income, disabled people require other support services in order to enjoy full and equal participation in society. The current crisis in social care is increasingly desperate, with disabled people routinely denied access to the toilet and to food and water for hours at a time.61 Local authorities are adopting harsher charging policies which are pushing some disabled people out of the social care system altogether while leaving many others in debt.62
Disabled campaigners are calling not only for a reversal of social care cuts, but for the introduction of a National Independent Living Support Service (NILSS) funded from general taxation and free at the point of need.63 This is a far better approach to the “care deficit”. Proposals put forward by Disabled People Against Cuts and the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance were backed by the 2019 TUC disabled workers’ conference, after the Unite delegation proposed a motion in support,64 and subsequently by the main TUC in September 2019. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is carefully avoiding a conversation with disabled campaigners about the future of social care.65
The NILSS proposals would compete with a UBI for additional government spending. Many of the public finance options currently being considered as ways to address the funding crisis in social care have also been put forward as ways to fund a UBI. In addition, there is a more general concern about pressures on public spending and negative impacts on social programmes as a result of introducing a UBI.
Returning to the question of social security, the current assessment regime has been designed to push disabled people off essential benefits. To this end, there are high levels of inaccuracy and unacceptable standards in assessments, and reports leading to thousands of disabled people being wrongly found fit for work.66 The introduction of a partial UBI scheme alongside a parallel system of disability benefits could instead create further problems and pressures to tighten eligibility even further in order to afford both systems. Donald Hirsch, in his paper for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, warns of “potentially greater stigma…and perhaps even a political pressure to lower the safety net to the citizen’s income level”.67
Supporters of a partial scheme where disability benefits are retained assure us that no disabled person will be worse off under UBI. But we were told the same thing about Universal Credit and that has proved anything but true.68
The illusion of a progressive UBI
UBI has been credited with the power to achieve radical social and economic impacts such as ending the idea that human worth is tied to a person’s ability to labour and produce profit and freeing humanity to unleash our creative potential. The emancipatory potential of UBI can only be realised by a basic income paid at a sufficiently generous rate to make wage work unnecessary for financial survival. In this instance, workers would effectively have at our disposal an unlimited strike fund and the balance of power would be in our hands. Under these conditions, with the freedom to organise society and distribute resources in the interests of the many not the few, it has to be asked whether we would then need a UBI.
Meanwhile, until we win a socialist society, we must examine how a UBI would be introduced and the effects it would have within society as it is rather than how we would like it to be. Under capitalist social relations with the current balance of forces and conditions of a Long Depression, it is almost certain that the only models of UBI that would be adopted would be those that make savings and cut public services. A basic income approach crucially also leaves the fundamental inequalities and power structures of society unchecked. As an approach to the changing nature of work, it facilitates greater job insecurity and wage reductions.
Mitigating the impacts of automation
The future of work and replacement of jobs with machines is a very current concern that proponents of UBI believe it can address.69 In December 2017, the IPPR think-tank warned that 44 percent of jobs in the UK economy could feasibly be automated over the next 10 or 20 years, equating to more than 13.7 million people who together earn about £290 billion.70 This follows a study by the Bank of England in 2015 which estimated that 15 million jobs are at risk with administrative, clerical and production tasks most at threat.71 Advances in technology would improve productivity growth after years of stagnation since the financial crisis in 2008. The government argues that this will lead to wage rises for workers, but this will be of little consolation to those whose jobs are replaced.
Rising automation will result in higher profits for those who own companies at the expense of workers’ jobs. As the UK government is urged to address the sharp growth in inequality that this would cause, there are calls for the redistribution of profits from automation through a UBI to ensure that the many rather than the few benefit from technological advances. Jeremy Corbyn used his party conference speech in September 2017 to suggest that a Labour government would use the tax system to ensure that the benefits of automation are widely shared across the economy. This idea was quickly dubbed the “robot tax”.
However, the fundamental issue with automation is not the need to replace income for workless humans but the question of the ownership of the technology itself. From this, the call for UBI serves as a distraction operating in the interests of the current owners of technology. It is no wonder then that tech entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg (net worth $64.1 billion), Elon Musk (net worth $20.8 billion) and Richard Branson (net worth $5.1 billion) have united in calling for a guaranteed basic income. This has been described by one commentator as “a mechanism to continue to exploit desperate workers earning subsistence wages and whom they can hire and fire at will”.72 It is also an attempt to guarantee buyers for their products after people have been put out of work by their technologies.
While these billionaires profess to care for the less fortunate, they continue to oppose workers’ rights and a living wage, as exemplified by the treatment of workers at Musk’s Tesla plants where, in February: “Tesla worker Jose Moran published a blogpost that detailed allegations of mandatory overtime, high rates of injury and low wages at the factory, and revealed that workers were seeking to unionise with the United Auto Workers”.73
A basic income only addresses the question of distribution, while ignoring that of production, and would not confront the labour market inequalities that would arise from a more automated labour market.74 It is through common ownership of technology, as opposed to redistribution of profit, that it would be possible to go further, extending free services such as a national health service, education and independent living support while enabling people to work for fewer hours.75
The actual level of threat posed to jobs by automation is also debatable with the 2019 World Development Report finding “that the threat to jobs from technology is exaggerated”.76 But the problems of worsening working conditions are already very real.77 This is a particular concern for disabled people who are more likely to be in low paid work to start with.78 Demands for a living wage and workers’ rights need to be at the forefront of what we continue to fight for in the here and now.
One of the arguments put forward in support of UBI is that it is a better fit with current trends in employment than the existing social security system. As a “solution”, this approach seeks effectively to subsidise business, supporting trends towards payment of low wages and lack of job security. It represents use of public finance to facilitate increased private profit-making with the potential to further depress wages.79
This is exactly the proposal put forward by the World Bank, which proposes UBI as a way of using social assistance to “relax pressure” on “setting the minimum wage” and replace “severance pay”,80 reducing the burdens on employers and enabling labour markets to be “more flexible to facilitate work transitions”.81 Its response to what it describes as the “fundamental and long-term” changes “reshaping work today” is to facilitate greater insecurity and lower wages.
The problem of insecure, low-paid work is a very real one. In 2015, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that 744,000 people were employed on “zero-hours contracts” as their main employment.82 A 2016 survey found 11 percent of the population aged 16-75 (the equivalent of nearly 5 million people) worked for online platforms and were paid by the task.83 Figures also indicate that a significant percentage of those in self-employment are not earning enough to make a living.84
Disabled people engaged in mandatory work-related activity are all too familiar with pressure from the DWP towards self-employment and insecure work in order to move off out of work benefits. A publication by the right-wing think-tank Reform argues that disabled people are missing out through lack of access to employment in the gig economy, which could solve the poor job outcomes of long-term Employment and Support Allowance claimants.85
The drive to push disabled people into unsuitable work and self-employment is deeply concerning. Many aspects of the gig economy make it inaccessible and inappropriate for disabled people, who may face barriers to online technology or negotiating contracts and who need a guaranteed income through periods of sickness and disability related absence. The British Psychological Society’s response to the UK government’s “Improving Lives” green paper consultation warned of the negative impacts of unsuitable work in exacerbating existing mental health conditions.86
The idea that UBI, rather than greater employment regulations, is the answer is problematic. Whereas supporters of UBI commonly cite its transformative potential as one of its major advantages, it is being put forward by the World Bank as a way to maintain and facilitate inequality and insecurity.
As noted elsewhere, the basic income demand is “just too basic and not radical enough”.87 It accepts and adapts to current conditions without challenging them. For workers, a UBI is then a retreat from demands that confront the interests of capital: secure employment for all who want it; higher wages and pensions; reductions in the working week and making full reasonable adjustments for disabled workers including guaranteeing sick pay and disability leave. These are demands that we need to be putting loudly here and now alongside calling for full and unconditional support for those unable to work—either through impairment or the vicissitudes of capital’s demand for labour.
If we want an end to the suffering that welfare reform is causing, UBI is not the demand we should be making. The social security system is now one that is intended to create an intolerable environment for benefit claimants. We urgently need the abolition of sanctions and conditionality, of benefit assessments designed to deny disability and of Universal Credit. The social security system of the future must be one capable of providing adequate social protection and a decent standard of living for all. Achieving such a radical transformation is no small task, requiring wholesale scrapping of existing systems and a fundamental redesign.
Proponents of UBI tell us that no one will be worse off under UBI but there is a dearth of evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, simulations for the introduction of a UBI to the UK indicate that the only way to ensure this would be through a partial UBI system run in parallel to a continuation of disability benefits. Supporters of such a system are then silent on the detail of how this separate system would work for disabled people, how it would address the many and considerable failings of the current system and how it would be afforded.
The distributional impacts of a UBI mean that there are winners and losers. Under certain models and simulations it would be the poorest households who stand to lose the most. A recent paper from the University of Bath presents an idea for a UBI with additional disability and severe disability premiums which, when micro-simulated, produces strong reductions in inequality and poverty but would be very expensive and would require significant increases in income tax. The report author concludes: “The unavoidable reality is that such schemes either have unacceptable distributional consequences or they simply cost too much”.88
Financing even a modest UBI set at a guaranteed minimum income level in the UK would require high tax rises, as demonstrated by an OECD study.89 The World Bank HDR, which promotes the idea of UBI as an international response to the changing nature of work, concludes that when it comes to the UK, “taxing cash benefits and eliminating tax allowances is not enough to cover for the UBI”.90 This is because the level at which current benefits are paid is so far below a guaranteed minimum income level that it would require the raising of significant additional funds to afford.91 In the UK a monthly BI amount that would cost the same as existing benefits and tax free allowances would pay £230 yet the poverty line for a single person is £702 per month. The fact that benefit levels in Britain are so far below the poverty line points back to issues with the current social security system that urgently need addressing.
Many of us would be in favour of tax rises in order to fund welfare provision—particularly corporation tax and a progressive rise in the higher rate of income tax. But the use of this for a UBI rather than more traditional forms of disability and unemployment support would mean much of the benefit flowing back to employers rather than those in most need. In functioning as a wage subsidy, a UBI would, over time, significantly reduce employers’ national insurance contributions while employers would also benefit from the state bearing an increased part of the cost of maintaining and reproducing the workforce.
A far more progressive solution would be to reverse the damage done to the social security system over the past 30 years and more. Measures such as restoring the Independent Living Fund, scrapping conditionality and sanctions, reversing cuts in the value of benefits and re-establishing the principle of universal benefits paid for by progressive taxation would be a good place to start.
Britain is currently home to the biggest socialist movement in Europe. The demands of today’s Labour Party for a living wage, for health and social care support services free at the point of need and a social security system providing an adequate standard of living free from conditionality are all popular. Adopting a Universal Basic Income would undermine these policies by helping to maintain existing power inequalities, facilitating greater job insecurity and low wages and risking further public service cuts. It should therefore be rejected by anyone who stands for a fundamental and socialist challenge to austerity and neoliberalism.
Ellen Clifford is a disability activist and member of South East London Socialist Workers Party. She is author of a forthcoming book, The War on Disabled People: Capitalism, Welfare and the Making of a Human Catastrophe due to be published by Zed Books in 2020.
Mark Dunk is a print worker, trade unionist and member of the SWP. He is based in South East London.
1 This article is an updated and expanded version of a report originally published by Disabled People Against Cuts—DPAC, 2019.
2 Martinelli, 2017, p4.
3 Standing has since updated his position in a report for the shadow chancellor. Basic Income as Common Dividends: Piloting a Transformative Policy (Standing, 2019) doubles down on the vision of UBI as a panacea for modern ills evident in Standing’s earlier work. It sets out claims that UBI will help slay “eight modern giants” ranging from inequality and insecurity to debt, stress, the rise of automation, precarity, ecological crisis and the rise of right wing populism. We hope to provide a closer examination of this report in a future article.
4 Standing, 2017, p297.
5 McFarland, 2016a and 2016b. Greater scepticism has more recently emerged from both Unite and the TUC: Unite executive officer Sharon Graham has said: “Many people see UBI as a cure all solution but they need to be careful what they wish for”—Quoted in Fletcher, 2018.
In September 2017, a report written for the TUC by the Fabian Society examining the arguments and evidence for and against UBI, concluded that there are as many potential problems as benefits—Harrop and Tait, 2017.
6 Labour Party, 2019, p60. A pilot in Britain was recommended by the think-tank Compass in 2016—see Reed and Lansley, 2016.
7 Cowburn, 2019. See also Mudie and Drew, 2019.
8 Gold, 2019.
9 World Bank, 2018.
10 World Bank, 2018, p92.
11 Pring, 2016.
12 Annie Miller’s 297-page Basic Income Handbook includes just one page on “The needs of disabled people” (of which half a page is about carers) where she explains how both housing and disability benefits are “beyond the scope of this book”—Miller, 2017, pp91-92.
13 Peterkin, 2017.
14 Bruenig, Jauhiainen, and Mäkinen, 2017.
15 Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, 2017.
16 Over a million sanctions have been applied to disabled claimants since 2010—Baumberg-Geiger, 2018. Research demonstrates that conditionality and sanctions are counter-productive in that they move disabled people further from employment, confirming that a conditionality approach to welfare is entirely ideological—Clifford, Mehta, Speed and Taggart, 2018.
17 Hirsch, 2015, makes this argument as do Sage and Diamond, 2017, and Bergmann, 2004.
18 Bowman, 2013.
19 Murray, 2006.
20 Standing actually bemoans public debate on basic income as an alternative form of social protection and “consequential” aspects such as the effect of UBI on labour and work which he considers to detract from its “authentic justification” as a form of “social justice”—Standing, 2017, p25.
21 RSB, 2008.
22 Roberts, 2016.
23 McFarland, 2017.
24 World Bank, 2018, p92.
25 Standing, 2013.
26 Forget, 2011.
27 For example, they are cited in Reed and Lansley, 2016.
28 Hirsch, 2015, p24.
29 Ontario’s basic income pilot was pulled by the new Conservative government led by Doug Ford, despite its continuation having been a manifesto commitment. A professor who advised on the pilot has written that the project was too flawed to have answered questions about basic income—Mason, 2018. It was reported in April that the Finnish government turned down requests to extend its basic income pilot beyond the end of 2018—Reynolds, 2018.
30 In the years that the Liberals have been in government in Ontario, the spending power of Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) has been allowed to fall. While the Tories cut social assistance rates, the Liberals have provided increases below the rate of inflation, driving people deeper in poverty. The Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) says that 500,000 people turned to food banks in 2016 and that it is normal for 70 percent of income to be spent on rent.
32 Chakrabortty, 2017.
33 Note that this is substantially higher than the rate paid to unemployed people in the UK through the equivalent here of Jobseeker’s Allowance.
34 The findings of the trial will not be available until the end of 2019/start of 2020. Positive reports in the media are based on anecdotal evidence from individual participants.
35 Petteri Orpo, Finnish minister of finance until earlier this year, also planned to look into trialling alternative welfare schemes, including a universal credit system similar to that being introduced in the UK, after the end of the Basic Income pilot.
36 Bruenig, Jauhiainen and Mäkinen, 2017.
37 Bruenig, Jauhiainen and Mäkinen, 2017.
38 Clarke, 2017.
39 O’Hagan, 2017.
40 Bott, 2017.
41 Stone, 2016.
42 The report’s authors include a former head of media for the Scottish Greens and a former Liberal Democrat policy convenor—Mackenzie, Mathers, Mawdsley and Payne, 2016.
43 Painter and Thoung, 2015. The RSA describes itself as a fellowship with a mission to “enrich society through ideas and action”.
44 Standing, 2017. Clarke notes that not only is Standing the advisor to the Labour Party BI working group but he “also had contact with the Ontario Government’s BI advisor, helped the Finnish Government design its pilot and has presented to none other than the World Economic Forum at Davos”—Clarke, 2017.
45 The People’s Panel is a group of volunteers set up by the council and others to give their views on various policy issues. Just 1.3 percent of panel members surveyed said they would consider leaving work if a basic income was introduced and these were predominantly nearing retirement age—Fife Council, 2017.
46 This translates to a basic income of £3,692 per year for all qualifying citizens aged between 25 and 65; pension of £7,420 per year for all qualifying citizens over 65; a basic income for children aged 0-4 of £4,290 per year for the first child and £3,387 per year for other children aged 0-4.
The model is based on the Citizen Income Trust’s 2012-13 scheme but with some important changes, notably that it does not replace housing or disability benefits. In distributional terms, compared with the original Citizen’s Income Trust scheme, the RSA model favours the poorest households with young children and leaves the richest somewhat worse off.
47 Painter and Thoung, 2015, p20.
48 Painter and Thoung, 2015, p14.
49 Painter and Thoung, 2015, pp20-21.
50 Painter and Thoung, 2015, pp21-22. The report also cites what it calls an “elegant proposal” for another design feature from the economist Robert Frank—supplementing basic income cash payments with offers of sub-minimum wage employment in “publicly useful roles”.
51 Mackenzie, Mathers, Mawdsley and Payne, 2016, pp4-5.
52 This works out as £100 per week per adult and £50 per week per child.
53 Peterkin, 2017.
54 The papers revealed through a freedom of information request are available online—Scottish Government, 2017.
55 Telegraph, 2017.
56 Reed and Portes, 2018.
57 Reed and Lansley, 2016.
58 Under Universal Credit, the ESA support group has been replaced by a designation of “limited capability for work and work-related activity”. The ESA work related-activity group has been replaced by a designation of “limited capability for work”. The unnecessary and bewildering complexity of the terminology is just one of the deliberate strategies used to discourage benefit claims.
59 The Tory government lowered the rate of ESA WRAG for new claimants from £102.15 per week to £73.10 to match the rate of JSA (a reduction of 28 percent) with effect from 1 April 2017.
60 Standing, 2019, p37.
61 Care and Support Alliance, 2018.
62 In 2018 the GMB union found that more than 160,000 people are in debt to their local authority because of the charges they are having to pay for their own social care.
63 ROFA, 2019.
64 Pring, 2019a.
65 Pring, 2019b.
66 From October 2013 to March 2017, 60 percent of ESA decisions (32,000) taken to appeal were overturned. This is in addition to 12 percent of decisions (31,000) revised at mandatory reconsideration stage.
67 Hirsch, 2015, p21.
68 In 2013 it was estimated that around 450,000 households containing disabled people will be worse off under Universal Credit.
69 Sodha, 2017.
70 Partington, 2017.
71 Elliott, 2015.
72 Hedges, 2018.
73 Wong, 2017.
74 Tarnoff, 2016.
75 Roberts, 2016.
76 World Bank, 2018, p4.
77 Peter Nolan, professor of work at Leicester University, quoted in Sodha, 2017.
78 The disability pay gap is 13.6 percent—Longhi, 2017.
79 Ikebe, 2016.
80 World Bank, 2018, p89.
81 World Bank, 2018, p88.
82 ONS, 2015.
83 Huws and Joyce, 2016.
84 Wheatley, 2017.
85 Dobson, 2017.
86 British Psychological Society and others, 2017.
87 Roberts, 2016.
88 Martinelli, 2017.
89 OECD, 2017.
90 World Bank, 2018, p95.
91 A budget-neutral UBI would require either a UBI reduced sizably below guaranteed minimum income levels, or additional tax increases—OECD, 2017.