Universal basic income: securing living standards for all?

By Fatima Measham | 28 Apr 16

What would it take to secure living standards for all?

The social impact of financial crises, technological disruption, the changing nature of work, and the political instability associated with these, raise important questions about income security, now and into the future.

Work, apparently, is not the solution. In the United States, wages became stagnant, with gains in productivity going toward shareholders rather than workers. In Australia, the trend toward casual and contract-driven positions means that income insecurity may become a permanent feature. There is anticipation that some jobs will become obsolete, perhaps quickly.

If work no longer broadly provides levels of income to meet needs like housing, healthcare and transport, as well as life-enhancing education and leisure, the ramifications are deep. For governments, it goes beyond providing safety nets.

Such developments renewed discussion around the idea of guaranteed or universal basic income. A basic income is essentially no-strings attached cash that is regularly given to everyone to live on.

The pragmatism that underpins the concept has drawn economists across the spectrum. On the left, basic income is seen as an antidote to absolute poverty. On the right, it simplifies welfare bureaucracy.

A Canadian experiment in the 1970s provides a micro-perspective. It found that minimum guaranteed income (in lieu of welfare benefits) lowered hospitalisation rates, and lifted high school completion and maternity leave, without drastically reducing work hours.

Going forward, the difference between left and right perspectives is significant because it determines the model: exactly how much a basic income should be; whether it is wage replacement or welfare supplement; whether it should be flat or progressive; how a basic income could be securely funded without increasing the tax burden; and how it would interact with inflation.

In any case the idea of a social protection floor has become mainstream, perhaps in time to replace neoliberal framing around “trickle-down” economics and the “rising tide that lifts all boats”.

When language normally seen in United Nations reports is adopted by venture-capitalists, then it seems fair to say that it is no longer a niche discourse. According to Y Combinator president Sam Altman: “It’s actually healthy for a society if some people get incredibly rich. But there should be a floor below which we as a society don’t allow people to fall.”

Again, this is a matter of pragmatism. Basic income may well prove less costly than welfare (and policing welfare). Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister for Greece, points out that it is “macro-economically unsustainable” to harbour growing numbers of homeless and unwell people. Or to put it another way, prevention is less of a burden than cure.

He also says that basic income is “the way to stabilise society” against uncertainty and conflict. He cited immigration as a source of these, though climate change would also arguably become a factor.

In Europe, basic income has gained traction, with the Utrecht experiment, a referendum set for Switzerland later this year, and a Finnish scheme to be implemented next year.

It may be a long while before it catches hold in Australia. But as an expression of how economically sensible it is to look after material needs of citizens, basic income challenges the persistent political fetish around preserving wealth for the few.