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The Case For a UBI Revolution

The Case For a UBI Revolution

While living in unprecedented times we begin to consider unprecedented options as a means of stability. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic we have heard talks of furloughing and UBI come into the Westminster agenda. The  stigma that exists around UBI not only underpins attitudes to work in the UK but also the long-term stigma around the benefits system. Paid employment is consistently held up as one of the ultimate markers of being a contributing citizen and an asset to society, with those not in paid work stigmatised as lazy. They become posed as two opposites on a spectrum, the shirkers versus the strivers, the “welfare dependent” versus the hard workers, and the deserving versus the undeserving.

For those in paid work, working hard and being constantly occupied with tasks is worn as a badge of pride. We see a conditioning of beliefs that hard work is all it takes to be a valuable, productive member of society. This “hard work” is often enforced by employers in the workplace through measures such as short breaks or expectations of staff to be available. This can mean staff work outside of work through networking or emailing. Work and jobs have become idealised as providing structure and meaning to our lives, while coincidentally withdrawing us from other sources of meaning, such as family, friends, relationships and communities. By working long hours and unpaid overtime we see negative psychological impacts on physical and social aspects of people's lives. However, this becomes normalised as a mere by-product of labour rather than something as a society that can be working on and thus we must question the centrality of the capitalist system to our happiness and consider alternative options.

Looking at the preliminary results from the Finnish basic income experiment found little impact on recipients likelihood to take paid employment. This should not be seen as the experiment failing instead we should look at the links between UBI and work. While one of the major objections of UBI is that  getting “free money” would undermine recipients’ motivation to undertake paid work, the Finnish case shows this is not so. Rather than paid employment a system such as a UBI could allow for individuals to pursue passion projects, create small businesses and undertake unpaid essential work. Just as we have seen during COVID-19 furloughing encouraging community spirits through  a drive to help each other and fulfil a duty to society.

The myth that paid employment is the cure to all problems is significantly overstated. While work as a route out of squalor may still hold true for some we see households in poverty in the UK are consistently those with at least one member participating in the workforce. The changing nature of work and the regression of jobs through means such as 0 hour contracts or unstable incomes coupled with the inevitable post COVID recession is enough reason alone to explore the idea of a UBI. Economic inequalities and wage gaps are only rising while those in poverty continue to struggle with their day-to-day lives, the relentless prioritisation of paid work seems to be becoming less and less defensible. Whether you are part of the lucky few who can derive satisfaction from employment or part of the vast majority employed in meaningless unsatisfying labour. We cannot deny that the world of work is changing and a solution for modern society must be adopted.

For its supporters UBI acts as a shield and a route through some of the economic challenges and struggles individuals face. It provides a stable income floor and a guaranteed minimum which no citizen should fall below. Low paid workers will have more freedom to reject horrible jobs or enable part time work. This also could be successful in holding employers to account. Employers providing the worst jobs, in the poorest conditions on the lowest wages would need to change their business in order to encourage applicants. Overall, a UBI helps those in society who need assistance the most and operates in a fair way to minimise wage inequality. While coupled with a progressive tax system and emphasis on wealth taxes it could allow for a revolution in the way we work and how we view work. UBI ultimately should be our goal to allow for a progressive post-work society in which we are able to liberate ourselves from our role as paid workers part of a system.

Megan Cole

24 Jun 2020

Featured image via Basic Income UK