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Opinion: As we start thinking about what work will look like after Covid, it's a good time to look at Universal Basic Income

Supporters argue that a basic income could help society to become more healthy, creative and encourage entrepreneurship.

Jonathan Rhys Williams Jonathan Rhys Williams, co-founder of UBI Lab Wales and Solicitor at Watkins and Gunn.

As part of The Good Information Project we are posing the question this month ‘What is the future of work after Covid-19?’. Universal Basic Income campaigner Jonathan Rhys Williams makes the case that this is a good opportunity for basic income trials.

SUPPORT FOR a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has grown at breakneck speed over the past twelve months.

The idea has moved from the fringes of political debate to one that is now firmly in the mainstream.

The reason for this? The pandemic.

An illustration of the strong support for the policy can be found in a recent poll undertaken by Survation on behalf of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, that found 69% of people in Wales back basic income trials.

But it’s not just the general public who are beginning to get behind the idea.

In Wales Plaid Cymru, the Wales Green Party and the Welsh Liberal Democrats have all committed to basic income trials in their manifestos. UBI Lab Wales’ Pledge for UBI campaign has gained the support of 106 Senedd candidates from five political parties. 

Across the Atlantic, Canada’s Julie Dzerowicz MP has recently introduced Bill C-273, which, if successful, will require the Canadian Finance Minister to create a national strategy for a basic income.

The Bill has led many commentators to believe that Canada will be the first country in the West to implement a national basic income programme. 

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has just announced a basic income programme that will provide $1,000 per month for 2,000 families for a year. He is the latest mayor in the US to introduce such a programme, following in the footsteps of former Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs. 

This level of support was, quite frankly, unimaginable over a year ago.

What is a basic income?

So how does it work? Basic income is the idea that everyone is given a fixed, regular and unconditional payment regardless of their income, wealth or employment status.

It would mean that no-one is left behind and that there is a safety net to catch everyone in times of trouble.

There is much debate about how we approach trialling a basic income.

In Ireland we’ve seen the Green Party come out in support of giving artists a basic income – something that Plaid Cymru has also committed to in their Senedd manifesto.

Whilst any trial is welcome, because it provides us with an opportunity to learn more about the impact a basic income can have, we must err on the side of caution when it comes to targeted trials.

Instead, we should concentrate our efforts on creating a trial that reflects society in general, rather than one that focuses on a particular sector – one that would reflect the universalism that is a central feature of basic income.

A trial that includes the employed, the unemployed, those experiencing in-work poverty, children and pensioners will provide the evidence we need to understand what benefits a basic income could have for everyone.

Here in the UK, I wonder what the impact would be on areas that have been decimated by Thatcher’s deindustrialisation? As someone from an old mining town, I want to know whether giving people money in those areas reduces poverty and reinvigorates the local economy.

A three-year trial that includes giving money to children aged between 14 and 17 could lead to an increase in educational attainment. In Wales many children leave school at 16 because they have to get a job to add to their family’s household income.

It may be the case that by giving them money they can stay in school and go on to higher education.

A basic income could encourage a wave of entrepreneurialism.

How many people have dreamt of setting up their own business but haven’t taken that leap of faith because they have nothing to fall back on?

It’s a huge gamble for them.

By offering that safety floor we may find that people are prepared to go it alone, which could stimulate the local economy and make those left behind towns and cities more attractive for investment.

We already know from past trials around the world that basic income has a significant positive effect on physical and mental wellbeing. 

For example, the recent Finnish pilot, where people were given €560 per month, showed that basic income recipients were more satisfied with their lives and experienced less mental strain than the control group.

The Stockton, California, trial showed that recipients were less anxious and depressed, as well as less likely to feel fatigue or body pain associated with poor mental health.     

By running a basic income trial with 10,000 participants in Wales, we would be able to see whether it has the same effect on health here.  

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Better health overall will result in a significant saving to the public purse – something that isn’t talked about nearly enough in the basic income debate.

And, of course, a healthier population means a more productive workforce.

These are just some of the possible effects a full trial could help us learn from.

Other potential impacts could include a reduction in transport use, which is essential for tackling climate breakdown.

The impacts a basic income could have on people looking to re-skill, which feeds into the debate around automation. The impact that a basic income could have for those providing care for loved ones.

I must stress that a basic income trial focused on the arts sector, as proposed by Minister Catherine Martin, or any other particular group may not be a bad thing.

But if the results of those trials are not as positive as we would hope, they could do more damage than good.

A poorly-designed trial could provide ammunition for opponents of basic income – and when we’ve come so far in such a short space of time, that would be a travesty.

It’s an incredibly exciting time for basic income advocates such as Basic Income Ireland and Social Justice Ireland. The pandemic has accelerated the idea into the public consciousness by five to ten years.

This is because people who never thought they would find themselves signing on for benefits are now having to do just that. 

Many now understand that we need 21st century solutions to 21st century problems – and basic income is exactly that. 

Jonathan Rhys Williams is co-founder of UBI Lab Wales and Solicitor at Watkins and Gunn.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.


About the author:

Jonathan Rhys Williams  / Jonathan Rhys Williams, co-founder of UBI Lab Wales and Solicitor at Watkins and Gunn.

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