Coronavirus

The case for Universal Basic Income in the time of COVID-19

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A report this week released by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) showed three concerning developments; 1 in 10 workers have been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms or face being sacked, working hours have substantially decreased, and working-class people have been faced with this fire-and-rehire policy at nearly twice the rate of middle-class workers. 

Last week, the government ruled out paying £500 subsidies to people forced to isolate, removing a financial safety net that would benefit people on lower incomes and help cut the rate of transmission of COVID-19. People are being denied the ability to follow the law. The precarious nature of work during the pandemic has become increasingly apparent and has also become increasingly dangerous. This is not what ‘levelling up’ should look like. 

During the first wave of the pandemic, the government proved there is a resource for an economically compassionate policy. They managed to house the majority of rough sleepers – accidentally enacting the single most effective policy to combat homelessness – practically overnight.

Many businesses were generously subsidised by the government and the workers most venerated had jobs which are usually cast aside by society and labelled ‘low status’. However, these changes feel temporary, they’re momentary inversions of the status quo.

The UK faces a deep recession with the prospect of long-term unemployment, while many employers are emphatically downgrading worker’s rights. These disruptions are potential catalysts for a new conception of work and society, a coherent picture of what has come before and what we need going forward.

Society is due for social, economic and historical compensation, and there is now a plausible case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

The general principles underpinning UBI, though not entirely uniform, are that every citizen regardless of status would receive the same financial stipend from the government, at a level to cover subsistence costs. Many commentators and policymakers view UBI in increasingly favourable terms.

As nations around the world test pilot schemes, there is growing consensus around the need for a robust social safety net. More widely and perhaps, more deeply, UBI has become a reasonable response to generationally ingrained inequality and social atomisation. There are economic arguments favourable to UBI, but more recently, debates have been centred around moral and ethical justifications. 

In 1997, Guy Standing, an expert on UBI, identified two trends that successive governments throughout the 70s and 80s failed to deal with: ‘Flexibilization’ and ‘Globalisation’. Both trends have steadily eroded hard-won labour rights, preconditions to meaningful social security. Governments have increasingly put ‘the market’ at the centre of policies introduced, fragmenting the way public services are delivered.

As Western economies become more flexible and globalised, jobs are shipped overseas, industries are increasingly automated, so fewer people are needed to help the economy function. Consequently, there has been a sizable reduction in the security of jobs, health, income and representation.

Governments have invested very little in creating stable and meaningful work, while the wealth that has been generated by these disruptions has been inadequately redistributed.

60% of the wealth in Britain is inherited, unsecured private debt runs into the hundreds of billions, while protected tax havens transfer millions to the wealthiest. Even before the pandemic, the growth of technology has further marginalised labour and enabled a proliferation of contingent and temporary contracts.

This insecurity has caused an explosion of ill-health, from addictions to anxiety disorders. The pandemic has exposed the varieties of modern precarity, but UBI can be crucial in attaining social security, which should be the foundation of economic recovery. 

UBI can re-establish an important idea; that progress is moral. Hoarded wealth via elite manipulation has made everyone’s right to subsistence far less realistic. The dual realms of politics and the economy should exist to improve lives, achieving progress through obligations to one another.

Though UBI primarily represents a form of reparations for undistributed wealth, it should also be viewed as a springboard for other potential freedoms, such as justice. It can reduce inequality and remove the costs of poverty away from public services. It respects the importance of unpaid care work which is necessary for the dignity of society. It also addresses growing educational disparities, allowing children to go to school for longer, consequently having more choices. 

There has been an obsession for hundreds of years with the capitalist work ethic, which wields the threat of poverty if you do not submit to its rules of productivity. This attitude is vital in keeping the mythology of capitalism alive, that there is a universal truth in the meritocratic ideal, of the deserving and undeserving poor. UBI has faced problems in generating support because it has failed to address this hard-wired conception.

Though the capitalist framework has been the primary engine of economic and social well-being, the pandemic threatens to erode such progress. Principles of productivity and growth now seem intangible and alien, many people’s jobs cease to exist, the definition of the ‘good’ life has been irrevocably altered; many are forced to look inward at cramped living spaces, and endless hours spent moonlighting as educators for their children.

UBI should be the first in a long line of economic and social reforms that start to address pervasive injustices highlighted by the pandemic. There is potential to actually ‘level-up’ by redistributing wealth more equally, enhancing educational prospects, improving the status of women – who have been forced to shoulder the greatest burdens of the pandemic – and reducing the toll of bad mental health.

The UK government must adjust itself, as people struggling to survive should not be punished but protected.

Cover image: ScouserUK via Pixabay. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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