Saturday 23 March 2019

Basic incomes for all would end the welfare poverty trap and give people greater control of their lives

Cartoonist: Ken Lee
Cartoonist: Ken Lee

Willie O'Dea

We should not be surprised when, after almost a decade of uncertainty and insecurity, people seek out some form - any form - of certainty and stability.

While we may justifiably decry the Brexit and Trump results as examples of false hope, we must not ignore the real lessons of these results and the pain and despair that partially underpins them.

The people most hurt by the economic downturn are still hurting. They hear about recovery, they even see it around them, but they do not feel it in their own lives. It is not just that they don't feel the recovery, it is that their day-to-day reality is as precarious and uncertain as it was five or six years ago. They feel there is no bottom line below which they cannot slip.

As politicians, it is our job and responsibility to offer hope and certainty, not merely by way of an inspiring speech or well-crafted presentation, but by hard and real policies that put a firm and secure floor under people's lives.

This is why I have been banging the drum for the universal basic income (UBI) for the past two years or more. The concept is a very straightforward one - it means every individual citizen should receive a regular payment on an unconditional basis. If you work more, you earn more - the system encourages you to do that but, if circumstances dictate you cannot work, you at least have a guaranteed and dependable income, not a welfare trap.

While the broad concept of UBI has been around for a while, the challenges facing us today - particularly the changing and often precarious nature of work, not least the threat to jobs posed by automation and short-term contracts - make it a realistic and workable response.

The specific threat to jobs posed by automation is real and has yet to be seriously addressed. The governor of the UK's Bank of England, Mark Carney, specifically addressed this point at a lecture at Liverpool John Moores University in early December. Speaking about a growing sense of "isolation and detachment" among people who feel left behind by globalisation and the rise of technology, he said: "The fundamental challenge is that, alongside its great benefits, every technological revolution mercilessly destroys jobs and livelihoods - and therefore identities - well before new ones emerge."

UBI is one way to tackle isolation and detachment by replacing means-tested entitlements with unconditional guaranteed minimum incomes that give people more control over their lives. It is not a simple, catch-all solution, but it does comprehensively address loopholes and flaws in our system of social supports that decades of ongoing reforms and changes have failed to correct.

UBI encourages work and rewards those who look for work rather than depending on welfare. It recognises that the overwhelming majority of people are aspirational, and so has the dignity and respect of the person at its core. UBI gives people more control over their lives by offering security and certainty.

UBI would replace virtually every non-pension welfare payment except disability and housing benefits. Scrapping the myriad complex and often contradictory welfare codes would mean the end of welfare administration and expensive means-testing, an end to pointless and unproductive Intreo/job-centre interviews and hated sanctions. The biggest long-term saving, however, would stem from ending the poverty trap disincentives built into the current system, where taking a job can leave you financially worse off.

UBI is not some neat policy we can take down off the shelf. It is a scheme we must design and generate in a bespoke manner suited to our particular needs and demands.

We should start the work now. We should follow the examples of many other countries - including Finland, Holland, USA and Canada - and fully explore how UBI could work here by setting up pilot programmes across the country.

In Utrecht, Holland, 250 citizens currently receiving government benefits are to be given a guaranteed income of €960 a month, while in Finland, two million unemployed people are to receive payments increasing to €800 a month. Both pilot projects are set to run for two years, during which time researchers will assess what effect removing conditionality has on the employment market. People receiving payments will not have to account to welfare officers or attend dole offices.

Pilot schemes are also being considered in Scotland - but as with all these pilot projects, each is designed to account for the unique cultures and circumstances of each region. We should be doing the same because the key to turning the UBI concept into reality is finding a model that works in practice.

We have squandered millions, if not billions, on well-meaning but ineffectual reforms over the years. Rather than continuing to tinker about with a system that has way outgrown its original foundations and fails to serve the needs of those who use it or who operate it, we need to get back to first principles and design a system that tackles the problems, not just moves them about.

Willie O'Dea TD is Fianna Fáil's spokesperson on social protection and social equality

Irish Independent

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