By Guy Standing
In 1942, as people started to think about remaking society after the War, William Beveridge wrote a report for the British government that was to shape the welfare state in Europe. He wrote, ‘It is a time for revolutions, not for patching.’ What he meant was that it was useless to make minor changes to the old system. A new system was needed. The evidence was clear.
Today, we are at a similar juncture. The social policies of the 20th century are outdated. Selective schemes for what economists call ‘contingency risks’, such as a spell of unemployment, an illness or an accident, do not deal with the defining challenges of our age. We live at a time of rentier capitalism, in which more income goes to owners of property – physical, financial or intellectual – while less goes to those who rely on labour and work for their incomes.
Coupled with this trend, a new class structure has taken shape, with a tiny absurdly rich plutocracy facing a growing precariat experiencing chronic insecurities and an erosion of social, civil, economic and political rights.
Above all, we are in an age of chronic uncertainty, portrayed in terms of ‘unknown unknowns’. Millions face constant anxiety and stress due to a high probability of being hit by unanticipated shocks, not knowing if they will be able to cope with the consequences or recover from them.
This is why basic income has moved to the centre of progressive social thinking. Sensible policy makers and commentators are realising that most people are ‘at risk’ and that insurance schemes are inappropriate for responding to uncertainty. A healthy society is one in which as many people as possible have basic security, and that is simply impossible at the moment.
It is not good enough for government to say that if you become poor aid will be provided. Means-tested assistance fails to offer a real safety net. Too many people are excluded, there is a big poverty trap and there is chronic uncertainty about what will be received.
However, something has been happening, amounting potentially to a revolution by stealth. Particularly since Covid, there has been an acceleration in the number of basic income pilots and experiments around the world.
Remarkably, a majority of them have been taking place in a country that until recently was one where there had long been little support for basic income. That is the United States. Today, about one hundred experiments are taking place there,or are just completed or about to start.
So far, over 100 cities in 32 States have experiments. In California alone, there are over 40 schemes, giving over 12,000 people basic incomes, costing over $180 million in public and private funds. The drive has been led by the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income scheme. But those Mayors are not alone. There are over 50 other experiments, in States as different as Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgia, New Mexico, New York and Texas. And at least eight schemes are about to start. Several of the schemes are those leaving care homes, similar to a pilot in Wales, where the devolved Labour government is giving a generous basic income to hundreds of young people. I am proud to be a technical adviser to that scheme.
There have also been pilots in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Results from evaluations are pouring in. The evidence is clear. It is so clear that we can say with confidence that we have sufficient. The challenge next is political.
What is the evidence? Overwhelmingly, regardless of the design or selected group, a key result is improved mental and physical health. This is immensely relevant since in the era of uncertainty there has been rising morbidity and a rising mortality rate in Britain, the USA and in some other countries.Pilots in Arkansas and New York, echoing a result found in a big pilot in Manitoba, have reported significant increases in the use of healthcare facilities.
Another common finding is improved housing security. Property owners are more prepared to rent to people with an assured income, and basic income recipients are more prepared to take the risk of renting. Projects in Vancouver, California and Oregon, drawing on the success of one in the City of London in 2010, have also shown the homeless moving off the streets.
Children are major beneficiaries. A pilot in Washington DC found baby health improved. One in Mississippi found mothers were spending more on school supplies. Most dramatic has been the finding from an ongoing pilot that began in North Carolina in 1996 that children in families receiving basic incomes were on average one year ahead in school by age 16.
Schemes have shown that many recipients use their basic income to reduce life-constraining debt. In Austin, Texas, half the recipients did so, a majority by 75% or more. Recipients also reduced debt in a scheme in San Antonio. There is also anecdotal evidence that individual basic income has enabled women to walk out of abusive relationships and women in general to have more financial independence.
Finally, contrary to prejudiced commentary, there is considerable evidence that basic income results in more work, not less. Part of the reason is that recipients have more confidence and energy. Partly it is because there is no poverty trap and precarity trap; people retain the basic income if they increase their labour.
Although it was shamelessly aborted midway through it, an experiment in Ontario, and although the provincial government tried to suppress the evidence, the data showed that recipients had continued to labour and many had increased it. But perhaps the most famous experiment, in terms of media coverage, was one conducted by the Government of Finland between 2017 and 2019, under which 2,000 randomly selected unemployed received 560 euros a month.
Typifying the prejudice of the mainstream media, the Guardian and BBC announced in mid-2018 that it had been abandoned as a failure. This was false. It began on the day planned and ended precisely two years later, as planned at the outset. Rigorous evaluation showed that the unemployed did not reduce their economic activity and experienced an improvement in mental and physical health. Even though a new centre-right government introduced an ‘activation’ scheme to pressure the unemployed to take jobs, at the end of the pilot the employment rate of the basic income recipients, who had not been subject to that pressure, was no lower than for those threatened with sanctions.
There is not space here to deal with other findings. But in developing countries as well, pilots have found increased work, improved nutrition, health, schooling and sanitation, and an emancipatory effect among women, minorities and those with disabilities.
In short, if governments were genuine in saying they will apply ‘evidence-based policy’, we would have a basic income system already. But the political Canutes are holding back the waves. It is this that demands our campaigning attention now. Most politicians are not real leaders. They follow what they think is the public mood or what they think will improve their re-election chances. They are opportunistic rather than principled. This does not mean they are cowards, corrupt or amoral. But too many have spaghetti backbones, that is, weak moral abilities.
Fortunately, some are not like that. They should take heart. Polls in many countries are showing majorities in favour of basic income. And whereas ten years ago, most people did not know what ‘basic income’ meant, now many do know.
Prejudice still comes in newspaper articles and in hasty comment on social media. But more people are able to counter that prejudice. Young educated members of the precariat are speaking up. Many can point to Gyeonggi Province in South Korea, where 125,000 youths are receiving basic incomes. Others can cite the results from all the pilots and experiments taking place.
I end this article with a prediction, of a domino effect. When a few countries introduce a basic income, more will quickly follow. It is eminently affordable. I believe the optimum way of affording it is by creating Commons Capital Funds. The nucleus for this route already exists.
Two very different countries have announced they will be introducing a basic income in the very near future – Barbados and South Africa. Perhaps they will be the first dominoes to fall. Peoples’ health and happiness and the political stability of their countries will be dramatically improved. Let us build the momentum and a civilising future.