SINCE the pandemic began, there has been a host of suggestions about the measures we as a society should put in place to support people through the emergency and rebuild our economy in the months and years to come.
One that has increasingly been gaining attention globally is the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), an automatic payment from the state to every adult legal resident, without conditions attached.
A UBI is always tax free and is designed to replace employee tax credits as well as core social welfare payments such as jobseekers’ allowance and statutory sick benefit.
It is a well-established proposal that has had several worldwide trials, and been investigated in Ireland for almost 40 years.
With a UBI in place, top-up payments would remain for those with special needs. The state pension would continue to be paid to all over pension age, and child benefit, housing support and some other supports would also remain in place.
Here in Ireland, the issue has quickly made its way up the political agenda in recent times. Only last week, President Michael D Higgins endorsed exploring a UBI. It was a key part of the Green Party’s manifesto in the recent general election and a commitment to trialling it during the lifetime of the next government featured as one of their 17 areas for discussion in the government-formation talks. Fianna Fáil has similarly committed to studying the feasibility of UBI in its last two election manifestos. Other parties have also expressed interest in the idea.
So what would an Ireland with UBI in place look like?
UBI supports all kinds of work, including unpaid care work, voluntary work and low-paid but valuable community work. Critics often argue that a UBI would remove the incentive to take up paid work, but employees would always gain financially from employment, paying tax on their earnings but still coming out better off. Indeed a recent two-year trial of UBI in Finland showed that its unconditionality did not discourage people from taking up paid work.
Our rural economy and the viability of rural life in general would also be greatly enhanced by UBI. Many farming organisations are in favour of a UBI as they recognise the impact it would have for farmers and growers. In fact our farmers would be a very suitable section of society in which to trial UBI. With our increasing awareness that we are not nearly as food secure as we previously thought, this could become a matter of urgency for our farmers, who are currently mostly on very small incomes and struggling for viability.
Certain other sections of society would benefit immensely. Universal basic income would support small businesses and entrepreneurs, because the people involved wouldn’t have to worry about making a living from the business while they get established. There would also be huge benefits for people such as artists and writers, whose work contributes so much quality to Irish life, but who can often struggle to make ends meet.
Some critics of UBI argue that it could hinder the targeting of funds to special-needs groups on very low incomes. There is no reason why this should be so.
Basic income is not intended to solve every problem in society, but instead complement other targeted programmes.
Social Justice Ireland has developed models for implementation of UBI in Ireland and have shown it to very doable from a financial perspective.
Others object to basic income on the grounds that it would mean higher income tax, but forget that the extra tax paid would be offset by the basic income received, for all but the very highest earners. For most people in the middle income ranges UBI would change their actual income very little, but what it gives them is an added security and flexibility to work when they can, care when they need to, and it also gives a huge benefit to those returning to education or reskilling. It would be in place for every adult member of their household and community unconditionally.
Crucially, had UBI already been in place, many of the recent emergency measures to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic would not have been necessary.
Another benefit from UBI is that it would allow a larger section of our society to look after our elderly relatives at home, and there would thus be less need for nursing home beds. How much better for our country could the past few months have been if we had UBI in place already?
UBI provides every citizen with a floor through which we as a society will not allow them fall. In many ways UBI is the dividend we gain for living in a caring, equitable, modern democracy. Now is the time we need to introduce Universal Basic Income.
Dominick Donnelly is the Munster spokesperson for Basic Income Ireland.
For more information please see: https://basicincome.ie