Despite all the uncertainty of global politics and economics, a citizen’s income could help us Glaswegians regain some control in 2017.
In many ways 2016 was a bad year for progressives. Welfare cuts, unfair work conditions and food banks remained; attitudes hardened towards refugees and immigrants; and right wing populists won the vote over Brexit and the White House. But, behind all of this, 2016 was also a year in which those wanting a more economically just, open and equal world also made their mark.
In Glasgow, local people met in community halls to plan local currencies, held protests to force the closure over Dungavel, and community food projects helped to bring neighbours whilst also tackling food insecurity. There was also renewed interest in the idea of a universal basic income.
This has been a Scottish Green Party policy for years and it is encouraging to see other Scottish parties now considering it. We now have a Citizen’s Basic Income Network in Scotland and well publicised trials in Finland, the Netherlands and Canada have helped to push this idea into the spotlight.
Unusually for an economic idea, it gains support from across the political divide, with both those in the traditionally ‘right’ and ‘left’ lending their support to the idea of piloting it. So what is it all about?
Critics point out that it is free money and will do nothing to encourage the ‘work-shy’ to seek employment. But this is to misunderstand two key trends of the labour market. First of all, the current punishment system of welfare conditionality is clearly not working. You just need to watch I, Daniel Blake to see how a guilty until proven innocent approach is not only morally wrong but clearly failing individuals keen to work.
Secondly, we must also remember that for many people in our society, full-time work is never going to be the better option. Some have health conditions which will be severely worsened by work, whilst many others perform invaluable caring roles, which saves the public purse millions every year.
Many people who have never experienced poverty might be forgiven for thinking the current system is fine: surely any job is better than being on benefits. But our current system often forces people to take low-paid, insecure work with little or no promotion opportunities. People feel trapped in poverty, with little or no job satisfaction.
A citizen’s basic income would allow individuals the stability to look for jobs better suited to their circumstances, which means they are more likely to be satisfied at work and therefore more productive, benefitting employers and employees alike.
Also, it is an income, not social security, so additional support should continue to be given to those facing additional societal barriers, such as individuals with disabilities.
The advent of the welfare state was a great achievement, bringing a degree of economic stability to the lives of many. But the economic world in which we live in is in many ways different from 1945 and we need an updated system
It is unclear how exactly the pilots in Glasgow and Fife will be funded, or how it will link in with our complex tax and benefit system. So it is important to regard this pilot as a learning experience, one which will unlikely go perfectly smoothly first time. Also, we all must be clear that a basic income will not hold all of the answers.
But, for many people on low incomes in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland, little is going smoothly at the moment. Insecure work contracts, benefit delays, constantly changing welfare system with yet more cuts, means there is no stability, never mind economic justice, in the current model.