Ian Greener – Why Basic Income may not be the Answer

Two major problems with Universal Basic Income

Ian Greener is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

Cross-posted from the website of the Social Policy Association

graphic reading Universal Basic Income

There is groundswell of support in favour of the introduction of a Basic Income, with this having special relevance in the post-COVID world, where higher levels of unemployment and insecurity are a significant threat. The introduction of a Basic Income would involve a (probably) monthly payment to everyone, irrespective of their own current income or wealth. It would be funded by simplifying the present (incredibly nebulous) benefit system, and possibly topped-up by an additional tax on wealth.

I think I understand the appeal of the Basic Income. Especially Guy Standing’s work presents a compassionate and rational account of why we ought to do this. It would give people choices about whether to accept work or not. It would help avoid people entering work being less well-off than if they would be if they remained on benefits. It might help avoid some degree of insecurity for the most vulnerable people especially, and support improvements in their mental health as a result. It may help strengthen citizenship and belonging. It might help simplify the benefits system.

And yet….

There are at least two big problems here.

Neglecting the root causes of disadvantage

The first comes from a point made by Jonathan Wolff and Avner de-Shalit in their book ‘Disadvantage’, although not in connection with Basic Income specifically. It is based on the idea that money is not necessarily an appropriate form of remedy for disadvantage. To use the authors’ own words “it is better to change the social and material environment to provide people with particular opportunities than to give them cash compensation which would provide opportunities of a different sort” (p. 29).

Now, we might argue that basic income isn’t there to compensate disadvantaged people specifically, as it is given to everyone. But for the poorest, basic income would effectively still act as a benefit designed to support them in the absence of other funds, when many of the more structural causes of their disadvantage (where they were born, the schools they attended, the education opportunities that they did or did not have, the work they could access and so on) would remain largely untouched. Basic income might, in time, lead to changes in some of these wider areas, but it would not itself deal with the root causes of disadvantage. If we are really serious about alleviating disadvantage, we need to address its root causes, and Basic Income risks being a distraction from this.

Scarce resources should go to the most disadvantaged

My second concern with Basic Income is that I would be receiving money that those who are most disadvantaged could benefit more from. Yes, I could donate my basic income to charity. But in the round, we could have done more for the most disadvantaged through a more targeted approach than we could achieve with Basic Income.

Benefit systems are complicated because lives are complicated. But I’d still rather try and give more money to the most disadvantaged than a Basic Income to everyone. And if we have to recreate a benefit system alongside Basic Income to make sure additional needs of particular groups are met, and we surely have to do this, then we risk losing a great deal of what makes Basic Income so appealing in the first place.

Basic Income has a lot to recommend it. However, it brings risks in terms of attempting to address social disadvantage through payments to everyone, when the challenges faced by those in most deprived situations need a wider, more systemic approach. Basic Income means giving less to the most disadvantaged than we could have done through targeted benefits, and would need us to create a new benefits system alongside it for those with additional needs. The problem with easy solutions is that, when they attempt to address complex problems, they risk missing the mark. It’s possible this is the case with Basic Income.

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