Universal basic income: too good to be true?

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Martin Luther King, 1967

It may come as a surprise to learn that the current ‘hot topic’ of universal basic income (UBI) – also known as basic income or income guarantee – is actually over 500 years old.

It was first developed by radicals such as philosopher Sir Thomas More in the 16th century, drawing upon humanist philosophy.  It was mooted by Thomas Paine in the 18th century, and then again in the mid-20th century, by economists such as James Tobin and Milton Friedman.  In 1967, Martin Luther King called for a ‘guaranteed income’ to abolish poverty, and in the 1970s, a basic income experiment ‘Mincome’ was conducted in Canada.

However, only in recent years has debate on universal basic income (UBI) moved into the mainstream.

From the threat of job losses from automation and artificial intelligence, an overly complex and bureaucratic welfare system that has been branded ‘unfit for purpose’, to the failure of conventional means to successfully tackle unemployment over the last decade – basic income has been hailed as a key way to reduce inequality and provide a basic level of financial security upon which individuals can build their lives.

It has many current supporters – including billionaires Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Branson.  There is support among the general public too, with a recent poll reporting that nearly half of all adults aged 18-75 in the UK (49%) would support the UK Government introducing UBI at the level to cover basic needs in principle.

 

How does it work? 

In essence, UBI offers every citizen a regular payment without means testing or requirement for work.

Trials of different models of basic income have been conducted around the globe, including Kenya, Finland, and Canada.  There are also UBI trials planned in the district of Besós in Barcelona, Utrecht in the Netherlands and the Finnish city of Helsinki.  Closer to home, four areas in Scotland are also currently designing basic income pilots – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire.

While there have been many different models of basic income trialled and assessed over the years, in general, basic income schemes share five key characteristics:

  • Periodic: it is paid at regular intervals, not as a one-off grant.
  • Cash payment: it is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not paid in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers with a specific use
  • Individual: it is paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households.
  • Universal: it is paid to all, without means test
  • Unconditional: it is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work

 

Anticipated benefits

The key anticipated benefits of the introduction of UBI is a reduction in inequality and poverty. However, advocates claim that it would also have many other benefits.  These include:

  • simplifying the existing welfare system (including efficiency gains)
  • reducing the psychological burden and stigma associated with welfare benefits
  • achieving more comprehensive coverage – no one ‘slipping through the net’
  • fixing the threshold and ‘poverty trap’ effects induced by means-tested schemes
  • enabling individuals to continue education and training, or retrain, without financial constraint dictating choices
  • making childcare arrangements easier
  • rewarding unpaid contributions such as caring and volunteer work
  • improving gender equality and help women in abusive situations
  • improving working conditions
  • addressing predicted future mass unemployment as a result of automation

 

Criticism

The key argument against the introduction of UBI is its cost – essentially that “an affordable UBI would be inadequate, and an adequate UBI would be unaffordable”.

Critics argue that if UBI were set at a level that enabled a modest, but decent standard of living on its own, then it would be unaffordable – either requiring much higher taxes, and/or the redistribution of funds from other areas, such as education or health.

However, if UBI was set too low, it would not provide an adequate income to live on, and it may be exploited as a subsidy for low wages by unscrupulous employers.

Others, such as economist John Kay, have argued that UBI simply would not have the redistributive effects intended.  Rather than improving the lives of those most in need, who would receive more or less the same as they do under existing welfare systems, it would instead provide more for the middle classes.

There is also some concern that UBI may undermine the incentive to work, and lead to the large-scale withdrawal of women from the labour market.

 

What does the evidence say?

Certainly, there is a beauty in the simplicity of UBI – and no one can argue against the goals of reducing inequality and poverty.  However, in truth, there just isn’t enough evidence available yet to judge whether or not the full-scale introduction of UBI would be successful.

While many pilots have demonstrated positive results, most have been of limited size and scope, and it is difficult to extrapolate these findings to the wider population.

Analyses by a wide range of organisations – including the RSA, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the OECD, and the International Monetary Fund, have drawn mixed results.

For example, a review conducted by Bath University in 2017 concluded that:

The unavoidable reality is that such schemes either have unacceptable distributional consequences or they simply cost too much. The alternative – to retain the existing structure of means-tested benefits – ensures a more favourable compromise between the goals of meeting need and controlling cost, but does so at the cost of administrative complexity and adverse work incentive effects.”

Similarly, the IMF conclude that in the UK and France, UBI would be inferior to existing systems in targeting poverty and inequality. However, there are some aspects of UBI that are difficult to model, such as the behavioural impacts of having economic security.  Trials and experimentation are important sources of such information.

Thus, the planned trials of UBI in Scotland and elsewhere may well help to provide further answers.  And we – along with others around the world – will be watching with interest.

As First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon aptly puts it:

It might turn out not to be the answer, it might turn out not to be feasible. But as work and employment changes as rapidly as it is doing, I think it’s really important that we are prepared to be open-minded about the different ways that we can support individuals to participate fully in the new economy.”


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Is the record high employment rate masking the reality of in-work poverty?

wage-packetBy Heather Cameron

The employment rate may have hit a record high of 74.6%, with unemployment continuing to run at an 11-year low, but in-work poverty has also reached unprecedented levels.

More than half (55%) of people in poverty are living in working households, including millions of children, according to the latest Monitoring poverty and social exclusion (MPSE) report.

And new research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published last week says four million more people are living below an adequate standard of living and ‘just managing’ at best.

Statistics

The findings of MPSE paint a bleak picture for a substantial share of the UK population. It notes that the proportion of the UK population living in poverty has barely changed since 2002/03, remaining at around 21%. And at 55%, those in poverty in working households has reached its highest level since the data set began in 1994/95.

Of this 55%, four fifths of the adults in these families are themselves working – a total of 3.8 million workers were living in poverty in 2014/15, an increase of around a million since 2004/05.

Female employees make up the single largest group within this group at 1.5 million, followed by male employees at 1.4 million. However, the majority of workers in in-work poverty are male (53%) as there were 620,000 male self-employed workers in poverty in 2014/15, while there were 250,000 female self-employed workers.

The story is different for workless households, however, as the proportion of people in poverty in these households has decreased, with the number in workless or retired families having fallen by half a million. Despite the significant increase in the number of people aged 65 and over, the figures show there are 400,000 fewer pensioners in poverty. There have also been reductions in the number of children in workless households.

While this is clearly encouraging, as the MPSE report suggests, it is difficult to categorise this as progress since there has been little change in the relative poverty measure overall.

Moreover, the new research from JRF warns that millions of just managing families are on the tipping point of falling into poverty as 30% of the population are living below the minimum income standard (MIS). In addition, 11 million people were found to be living far short of MIS, up from 9.1 million, who have incomes below 75% of the standard.

So what is causing these worrying statistics?

Contributory factors

The labour market has undoubtedly had some influence on these figures, with low wages and insecurity. Although average incomes have begun to rise, they are still below their peak. Male weekly earnings are still lower than 2005 levels and female weekly earnings, although now equal to 2005 levels, are still below what they were in 2010.  And with inflation expected to return, it has been suggested that hourly pay is unlikely to reach its pre-recession peak before 2020.

However, this is only part of the issue. There are also a number of other contributory factors, including:

  • increasing cost of living;
  • housing market failures; and
  • cuts in welfare benefits.

The increase in numbers living below an adequate standard of living has been driven by rising living costs while incomes stagnate. The price of a minimum ‘basket of goods’ has risen 27-30% since 2008, and average earnings by only half of this. The JRF analysis suggests the cost of living could be 10% higher by 2020, a period when much state support has been frozen.

Housing is also an important factor. It is often too expensive and of poor quality, particularly in the private rented sector. The MPSE findings show that the number of private renters in poverty has doubled over the last decade, with rent accounting for at least a third of income for more than 70% of private renters in poverty.

Households accepted as homeless and those in temporary accommodation have also increased and landlord evictions are close to a ten-year high.

Added to this, is the four-year freeze on benefits, tax credits and Universal Credit (UC), along with a reduction in the overall benefit cap. The benefit cap mainly affects households with children and will increase the number of families affected, from 20,000 to 112,000.

All this puts those on the lowest incomes at risk.

Way forward

Clearly, strong growth in the number of people in employment does not mean an end to employment-related disadvantage.

To help end poverty, the JRF has called on the government to make a number of changes, including:

  • reversing cuts to the amount people can earn before their benefits are reduced;
  • ending the freeze on working age benefits;
  • extending support to low wage sectors to reduce the productivity gap; and
  • investing in a living rents scheme to provide more affordable housing.

As the MPSE report concludes, “solutions for in-work poverty require more than just more work.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on poverty.

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Basic Income – a simple solution to a complex problem?

By Heather Cameron

If you want to incentivise work at every level of income then Basic Income is simply the best system.” (RSA, 2015)

Last month MPs in the UK Parliament were asked to consider the question of introducing a universal basic income to be payable unconditionally to all citizens without means-testing or work requirement.

The motion, which was tabled by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, says the policy “has the potential to offer genuine social security to all while boosting entrepreneurialism”.

While no vote was taken on the policy, and it is unlikely to be made law any time soon, the motion raised the profile of the issue by enabling MPs to add their name in support.

And with ever increasing global interest in the idea, and basic income pilots set to spring into action all over Europe this year, perhaps it’s not as far away from becoming a reality in the UK as we may think.

Pilots

A number of cities and countries across Europe have committed to trialling a basic income.

Last year Finland announced a national basic income experiment, scheduled to start in 2017, which will be the EU’s first nation-wide project. It will see up to 100,000 Finnish citizens paid an unconditional income for a period of two years, after which the results will be analysed to see whether it should be rolled out nationally.

Trials have also begun in the Netherlands. The Dutch city of Utrecht will pay a small group of benefits claimants, whether they work or not, a basic income of £660 a month to provide a basic standard of living and help them avoid the ‘poverty trap’.

In Switzerland, a national referendum on a basic income is planned for this year, and support for the idea has also been reported in France and Canada.

While it is too early to tell whether these pilots will have the desired positive effect, the concept of a basic income is far from new and there have been signs of success from past experiments.

Positive outcomes

In the 1970s, a basic income social experiment, ‘Mincome’, was carried out in the Canadian town of Dauphin, which involved making payments to the entire population, relative to income to cover basic living costs. The programme succeeded in reducing poverty, improving health and alleviating other urban problems.

More recent basic income projects in developing countries have also helped alleviate poverty. In Namibia, a coalition of aid organisations trialled a basic income, funded through tax revenues, of 100 Namibian dollars to each citizen. The result: crime was reduced, children attended school and many villagers used the money to fund micro-enterprises. Meanwhile, in Uganda, a similar programme increased business assets by 57%, work hours by 17% and earnings by 38%.

Critics of such a system say that it would cost the state too much money, and would lead to welfare dependency and a reluctance to work, ultimately resulting in higher unemployment.

A recent survey undertaken in Switzerland would seem to refute this. It indicates that only a very small proportion of the population would stop working if they had a basic income and a majority believe that it would “relieve people from existential fears.”

Similarly, the Canadian experiment found no substantial difference in either female or male unemployment. There were changes in the labour market, as would be expected, with a reduction in working hours within families as a whole. Female spouses reduced their working hours to spend more time with children; and hours were reduced for adolescents within the family who entered the workforce later, suggesting that they were able to stay in education longer.

Way forward for the UK?

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has recently concluded that there is a strong practical case for basic income in the UK to replace the current tax and benefits system – “it underpins security, replaces the complexity of the current system, and provides a platform for freedom and creativity.”

The RSA report sets out a potential basic income model for the UK. It would provide a universal payment to every citizen, (with restrictions for migrants and those serving custodial sentences). A ‘basic’ amount paid to everyone of working age would provide incentives to work, therefore mitigating against low pay traps of the current system. It would also, the RSA report claims, mitigate against some of the negative distributive effects of basic income schemes by redistributing from higher earners to families with children.

The report calculates household income, comparing the proposed model with the current system of likely Universal Credit/National Living Wage income for 2020/21. In all instances, ranging from single parent families with children under or over five to couples with children under or over five, there was a gain for household income under the basic income model.

With the current welfare system and all its complexity, the new Universal Credit apparently not doing what it’s supposed to and the continued increase in job automation, is this really just a simple solution to a complex problem?

Perhaps by the end of 2016, there will be more evidence for the UK to seriously consider.


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Goodbye Green Deal: the government’s decision to axe its energy efficiency scheme leaves a gap that will be hard to fill

By James Carson

The Green Deal is dead. Last month, the energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, announced that no further applications for finance from the project would be accepted.

The Green Deal was launched by the coalition government in 2013 with the aim of improving energy efficiency in homes across England, Scotland and Wales. Under the programme, households could borrow up to £10,000 for household improvements such as double glazing or home insulation, and make repayments through their energy bills.

As well as addressing fuel poverty, the energy efficiency scheme was also regarded as having a crucial role in meeting the UK’s emission reduction targets.

But, almost from day one, the programme was criticised as too complicated for the energy efficiency sector to administer and too hard for householders to understand. The first round of Green Deal funding attracted fewer than 2000 applications.

Although take-up improved in subsequent years, the scheme was still poorly regarded, not helped by reports of botched installations. Last year the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee concluded that the Green Deal had failed to live up to expectations, arguing that its planning was flawed, its funding inefficiently delivered, and its implementation poor, all made worse by inadequate communication.

What’s the alternative?

But although few will mourn its passing, the sudden death of the Green Deal, with no replacement, has generated angry responses.

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, said:

“While the Green Deal was by no means perfect, the principle of enabling households to install energy-saving measures without paying upfront costs was sound.”

Greenpeace UK chief scientist Dr Doug Parr commented:

“Ditching measures to improve energy-wasting homes will simply leave people to pay more for their bills, with low-income families bearing the brunt of it.”

There’s little doubt that many of Britain’s homes need to improve their energy efficiency. In 2012, 357,000 homes in England had the worst energy ratings of F and G, and more than four in 10 of those were classed as “fuel poor”.

Badly insulated housing has significant impacts on health. Earlier this year, an analysis by Friends of the Earth suggested that cold homes lead to many more people in England than Sweden ending up in hospital with breathing problems, despite England’s much milder weather.

Announcing the Green Deal’s demise, Amber Rudd promised to work with the building industry and consumer groups to create a new system. The government has also commissioned an independent review to look at standards, consumer protection and the enforcement of energy efficiency schemes, to ensure that any future arrangements provide better value-for-money for taxpayers and consumers.

At the moment, another government energy efficiency scheme – the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) remains in operation. Under the ECO the big six energy suppliers are required to help vulnerable householders save on their energy bills and carbon emissions. However this scheme is due to be wound up in 2017.

With no replacement for the Green Deal on the horizon, the energy efficiency sector has been suggesting alternatives, including:

  • stamp duty and council tax rebates for homebuyers installing energy efficiency measures
  • setting aside some of the government’s projected £100bn infrastructure spending for insulating homes
  • A new ‘pay as you save’ scheme similar to the Green Deal, but one which offers more measures and is easier to administer.

In the meantime, industry, householders and environmental campaigners must wait for the government’s next move on energy efficiency.


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The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group: showing us how we can tackle digital exclusion

By Steven McGinty

As the government pushes towards ‘digital by default’, a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online, it’s worth remembering that 20% of the UK population still lack basic internet skills. Groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have raised concerns that ‘digital by default’ could significantly impact on vulnerable and marginalised communities, particularly those claiming welfare benefits. However, if every citizen had basic digital skills and could use online government services, it could save the public purse between £1.7 and £1.8 billion annually.

So, which groups are the most digitally excluded?

According to the UK Government’s digital inclusion strategy, digital exclusion occurs among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. These include:

  • those living in social housing (approximately 37% of those digitally-excluded live in social housing);
  • those on low incomes (44% of people without basic digital skills are either on low wages or are unemployed);
  • those with disabilities (54% of people who have never been online have disabilities);
  • older people (69% of over 55’s are without basic digital skills);
  • young people (only 27% of young people who don’t have access to the internet are in full-time employment).

What are the main barriers to using online services?

In 2013, the Carnegie Trust carried out research into internet access in Glasgow. The findings suggest that there are three common reasons why people never go online:

  • the comfort of doing things offline (34% of people cited their preference for speaking to people on the telephone, or in person, as the reason they don’t go online);
  • a fear of digital technology and the internet ( 28% were worried about issues such as using technology and staying safe online);
  • the costs involved (20% of people highlighted pressures on incomes and the cost of internet connections).

What are the main drivers for people going online?

More recently, the Carnegie Trust carried out a new piece of research, replicating their Glasgow study in two new locations: Dumfries and Kirkcaldy. The study investigated the main reasons people choose to go online. The findings show that:

  • 56% of people went online to find information of interest to them;
  • 48% went online to keep in touch with friends and family;
  • 44% thought it would be an interesting thing to do;
  • 44% had to go online as part of their work.

 How can we encourage people to go online?

Both Carnegie Trust studies show that each individual’s journey to digital inclusion is different and that a ‘personal hook’ or motivation, such as the opportunity to communicate with family members abroad, is an important tool for encouraging digital participation.

Additionally, they also show that friends and family are an important source of help when people are taking their first steps online. For instance, the case studies in Dumfries and Kirkcaldy highlight that people would appreciate help from ‘trusted intermediaries’ or local groups.  Therefore, it’s important that digital participation initiatives make use of existing communities’ networks and tap into the support available from friends and families.

Wheatley Group

The Wheatley Group, which includes Scotland’s largest social landlord, the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), has been heavily involved in addressing digital exclusion. They have developed a digital strategy to help social tenants access the internet and are committed to proving free or low cost internet access (maximum of £5 per month).

The Group has also been involved in two pilot projects: one which provides technology to 12 low-rise homes, and the Digital Demonstrator project, which tests the feasibility of low-cost broadband in multi-storey blocks. The pilot projects highlighted two important lessons:

  1. the role of the local Housing Officer was key for engaging with tenants
  2. it was important that communities and neighbours learned together.

In an ideal world, every citizen would be digitally literate, and be able to interact with government online. However, this is not the reality. The work carried out by the Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group provides a solid basis for developing digital initiatives and ensuring that citizens and communities are not left out.


Further reading:

Sharing the caring – tackling the cultural and financial barriers to Shared Parental Leave

Baby hand in father's palmBy Donna Gardiner

New Shared Parental Leave legislation came into force in England, Scotland and Wales on the 1st December 2014.

The legislation provides much greater flexibility in regards to how parents care for their child over the first year of his or her life. Specifically, a new mother can opt to curtail her maternity leave (subject to a minimum of two weeks), and have the child’s father or her partner take any of the remaining weeks as Shared Parental Leave.

Anticipated uptake and impact

The aim of the legislation is to encourage more men to share childcare, drive greater gender equality in the workplace, and eliminate discrimination around maternity leave. The government estimates that around 285,000 couples will be eligible to share leave from April 2015, and that take up will be around 8%.  However, it is not clear whether significant numbers of fathers will take up Shared Parental Leave in practice.

On one hand, there does appear to be evidence that fathers will welcome the new proposals. Research conducted by Working Families found that many fathers wanted to increase the amount of time they spent at home with their children. Indeed, many fathers, particularly those in the 26-35 age group, felt resentful towards their employers because of their poor work-life balance.

These findings are echoed by the IPPR, which found that one in five fathers wanted to change their working patterns, and another one in five wanted to spend more time with their baby, but couldn’t because of financial or workplace reasons. Another report found that over half (57%) of fathers working full time wanted to reduce their hours to spend more time with their children.

Cultural and financial barriers

However, despite the apparent desire among fathers to spend more time with their children, considerable barriers remain. Continue reading

Addressing the causes of in-work poverty

Image from Flickr user MoB68, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user MoB68, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License

By Donna Gardiner

This week is Living Wage Week and the issue of workers struggling to make ends meet has been in the news again. Back on 23rd September 2014, I attended an event held by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) on the changing nature of work and in-work poverty in the UK, with a specific focus on Glasgow.

Over 100 delegates from across the public, private and voluntary sectors came together to learn about the latest research findings, take part in round table discussions and contribute to a panel debate on how to address the causes of in-work poverty. Speakers included experts on poverty from the Scottish Government, Glasgow City Council, Ipsos MORI, the Employment Research Institute at Napier University and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health.

The day began with a presentation by Jill Morton, from the Communities and Analytical Services division of the Scottish Government. Jill provided an overview of the Scottish Government’s policy commitments to tackle poverty, and highlighted recent statistics regarding the incidence of poverty in Scotland.

She reported that, in Scotland in 2012/13 (the most recent data available), 16% of people, and one in five children, were living in poverty.

Jill noted that whilst employment was the best route out of poverty, it was no longer a safeguard against poverty as over half of all working age adults in poverty in Scotland were from households in which at least one person was in employment. Six in ten children in poverty were also from working households. Jill concluded that for poverty to decline, lower income households must have access to quality and sustainable employment.

Continue reading