Universal Basic Income - An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Universal Basic Income - An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Image by Andrew Khoroshavin from Pixabay 

“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come”
Victor Hugo

At the beginning of this week, Marcus Rashford a 22-year-old Premier League footballer wrote an open letter to all the UK’s MPs asking the government to reverse its decision not to fund free school meals for the UK’s most vulnerable children during this year’s summer holidays.

The child of a single parent himself, he had experienced first-hand the struggles his mother experienced working minimum wage jobs to put food on the table for her children.  Food banks, free school meals and the kindness of friends and family made the difference between having enough to eat and going hungry.

“The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.”

That, sadly, reflects Britain today.  

As Rashford pointed out in his letter, this isn’t a political issue, it’s a human issue.  1.3m children in need.

“Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?” 

Quite.  Oh, no, wait a minute. Apparently we can’t.  Downing Street’s initial response on Monday afternoon was that the scheme would end, as originally planned, at the end of the school term.

And of course, let’s not forget those generous folks on Twitter:

This, by the way, from a woman who set up a PayPal account after losing a libel case so folks could bail her out. As Gary Lineker subsequently tweeted:

“Some of you on here are saying that poor children shouldn’t be given a food voucher that will stop them from going hungry.  Think about that for a second.” 

Rashford was not about to give up.  On Tuesday morning, he started to use his social media clout to keep pushing the message.  THIS, this is the power of social media.

Decency prevailed.  After claiming he had been unaware of Rashford’s letter until earlier on Tuesday  (he must have been back in that fridge 🤣), Boris Johnson was forced by the tide of public opinion and pressure from his own backbenchers to execute a swift U-turn (not for the first time during this pandemic, and quite possibly not the last) and confirm the scheme will continue in England throughout the school holidays.  Scotland has swiftly followed suit.

On the same day that Rashford issued his open letter, a UK cross-party Treasury Select Committee issued a report highlighting specific groups of UK workers who had ‘fallen through the net’ in terms of the measures taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer back in March to help employers and employees and minimise job losses.

Whilst those measures placed an unprecedented future debt burden on the government, it was absolutely necessary and was in line with similar schemes rolled out across Europe.

Of course, in situations like this, there will always be ‘gaps’, but it remains the case that a significant number of workers have found themselves apparently ‘left behind’, with no help in sight.

Amongst those affected:

Self-employed business owners whose profits exceed £50,000 per annum.  If your profits pre-pandemic were £49,500 you were eligible to receive £2,500 per month.  If your profits were £50,001 you receive zero.  Nothing.  This contrasts with the situation for employees paid under PAYE.  They receive up to 80% of salary with a cap of £2,500 per month. No explanation has been given as to why a simple cap could not be applied for the self-employed.

Directors of limited companies who pay themselves primarily via dividends rather than salary.  No payments are made to compensate for the loss of dividend income.  It’s not as though this segment of the working population pay no tax – they will have paid corporation tax on their profits.

The Select Committee estimates up to a million workers (and their families) are affected.  So far, the Chancellor has given no indication that any help will be offered to them, beyond the usual state benefits package.

Extreme events always expose weaknesses.  Child poverty is something which, to our shame, Britain had been dragging its feet to alleviate, way before the pandemic hit.  The threat of mass unemployment beyond anything seen since the Great Depression called for desperate measures.

The question now, for me at least, is where do we go from here?  Because clearly, ‘here’ is not a good place to be.

I don’t know, but I would put good money on Universal Basic Income (UBI) being implemented in a number of forward-thinking countries in the years ahead.

What?  Give people free money?  Are you mad?

The concept of UBI is not new.  It was first proposed in the 16th century by Thomas Moore in his seminal work Utopia. 

But let’s fast forward to the 20th century.  In the 1970s, the US under President Nixon came this close to implementing UBI.  The reason why it wasn’t implemented hinged on one, bizarre issue:


The argument against UBI, based on what I’ve read, seems to revolve not around issues such as the cost (and in any event it seems, on balance, that the cost would be far outweighed by the benefits), but around the belief in some quarters that if you pay people to do nothing then that’s what they’ll do. Nothing.

Where UBI has been trialled, there has been little evidence to suggest this would be the case.  For one thing, UBI would be designed to cover basic living needs, not to allow people to live high on the hog.  Much as Warren Buffett advises in gifting money to your children, it should be enough to allow people to feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could have a better standard of life than those who work by doing nothing.  Secondly, the vast majority of people want to do something with their lives – few really want to sit about doing nothing, and those who do will do that unless you remove every last benefit safety net so surely there’s nothing to lose on that front.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone another bright spotlight on the inequality which exists in our world. If anything positive is to come out of this dreadful virus wouldn’t committing to bridge that gap be a legacy to be proud of?

I think for those of us in the developed world, pretty much regardless of where we live, with just very few exceptions (Scandinavia springs to mind), a majority of us would agree that our respective welfare states are no longer fit for purpose.  If we could find a solution which, rather than trapping people in poverty, would give them the mental and economic ‘breathing space’ to escape poverty, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to implement it?  If UBI could be that solution, it seems to me all we need are those with the bravery and conviction to do it.

It’s not something that can be implemented overnight.  Societal changes as huge as this need a great deal of forethought.

But, ultimately, as Rutger Bregman says, isn’t this what capitalism is all about? It’s the world’s most successful economic model.  And look where it has brought us.  To a point where we can afford to give each and every person the security of a basic income.  It’s “a dividend on progress, made possible by the blood, sweat and tears of past generations.” Isn’t it a privilege to be in this position?

The wheels are turning.  I don’t think this is an idea which is going to recede once we get back to normal life.

Everywhere basic income has been tried, in one map 

One California mayor has tried universal basic income.  His advice for Trump: ‘Think big’ 

Canada’s cancelled basic income trial produces positive results 

Spain to become first country in Europe to roll out universal basic income 

And finally, the UK government’s current stance on the matter (subject to U-turn, obvs 😉)

Government rejects idea of universal basic income in the future

It’s not politicians who change the world, it’s ordinary people who are extraordinary.  People like Marcus Rashford (and believe me that’s huge praise coming from a Liverpool supporter 😉)

“Progress is the realisation of Utopias”
Oscar Wilde