“Who?” and “How?” – What the public thinks of a Basic Income

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A survey on basic income conducted by the Sheffield Equality Group concludes public support for a Basic Income has the potential to be strong

When Sheffield Equality Group considered how to combine informing public attitudes to welfare alongside researching alternatives, Basic Income was an easy choice.

Jason Leman of the Sheffield Equality Group writes:

The group lobbies for reducing the gap between high and low incomes, in response to evidence (such as that presented in The Spirit Level) that societies with a narrower income gap have better social outcomes. Yet there are many barriers to reducing this income gap. One of these is the negative perception of those needing social support. This stigmatisation is encouraged by politicians who, like all bullies, look strong by punishing the powerless and a media who sell more copies if their copy inflames indignation. A Basic Income offers a transparently equitable way of reducing income differences, removing the stigma of benefits.

Drawing on Malcolm Torry’s book Money For Everyone along with other research, the group developed a questionnaire on Basic Income. The questionnaire presented evidence about the failings of the current welfare system and proposed Basic Income as a solution. After testing out a draft with each other we cut the questionnaire in half and simplified the language. Then we went out, to friends and acquaintances, and onto the streets of Sheffield, exploring what a future welfare state might look like.

Perhaps the first surprise was that people were generally positive about the idea. Four out of five supported the introduction of a Basic Income, with common responses being along the lines of… “that’s clever”, “I like that, I hadn’t thought of it”, “what a great idea”. One key argument for a Basic Income may be the growing precariat, the low-paid poor-conditions workers struggling with a shrinking welfare state. There seemed to be recognition that if business demands temporary and flexible workers a system of support is needed. This also applied to young people moving into and out of training schemes and education. So is an Unconditional Basic Income about to sweep the nation?

There were three main questions that made support for a Basic Income more qualified. First was the detail. Our outline suggested progressive taxation would fund it – the rich would pay more, the poor would pay less, and everyone would get the same out. However, this does not explore the detail of what it would mean for people in practice. There are many models of what would fund a Basic Income and arguments about how realistic these mechanisms are. Public discussion around a Basic Income may need to extend to ideas such as Land Value Tax, negative interest rates, monetary reform, and so on. Without a clear funding mechanism the Basic Income could remain in the “nice idea but it’s not going to happen” basket of public perception.

Second came the immigrants. Who is defined as a “citizen” is key to the concept of “Citizen’s Income”. This issue is difficult to explore, as some people don’t want to appear prejudiced whilst others enjoy self-righteous exclusion of the ‘other’. To enjoy support from middle-England a Basic Income may need to be exclusive or demand a quid-pro-quo. In the future this might be an ignorant worry from when nations still meant something. On Sheffield streets decorated with tabloid headlines, community tensions, and everyday resentment, it was a live issue.

Third was the undeserving or the unmotivated. The “free-rider” problem is the universal thorn in the side of a Basic Income. For example, 85% of our respondents supported introducing a Basic Income for young people to support them in education or training. This support faltered if the Basic Income was made unconditional. Partly in mind was the lazy slob watching TV all day at the taxpayers expense; 42% thought that would happen with a Basic Income. Yet also in mind was a belief that a Basic Income could take away the motivation to engage with life. Speaking of a young family member who spent their days stoned and playing computer games, one (also young) respondent worried an Unconditional Basic Income would keep them in wasted comfort. As we are seeing with the current welfare reforms, conditionality can mean starving people into unpaid work, but the issue of motivation is well-intentioned and would need addressing.

A difficulty in exploring a Basic Income is that what someone thinks they would do in a given situation does not always match the reality. Most people in our survey said they would still work in an interesting flexible job if receiving a Basic Income. This dropped to 56% saying they would take a boring job with a long commute, especially younger respondents. This does have potential to raise a debate about whether boring jobs with poor conditions have any part in a decent society. However, this distracts from the reality that where a Basic Income has been introduced people keep working, allbeit sometimes on reduced hours.

There were other indications that it is difficult to judge what people would really do if receiving a basic income. Four out of five people said they would take up a full-time voluntary post, however those already in a position to do voluntary work were less confident. Indeed, a Basic Income would entail such radical social change it may be difficult to predict precisely what social changes would result. Any future implementation would need to be adaptable and responsive to uncertainty.

Our research raised questions needing further investigation. Public support for a Basic Income has the potential to be strong. The faults of our complex, unresponsive and punitive welfare system are clear. The benefits of a Basic Income are self-evident. There is no problem with the “why?”. The challenge for gaining public support is to provide clear answers, or at least a clear way forward, to questions over “who?” and “how?”. We hope to carry out a wider survey exploring some of these questions further.

You can read the full report here (pdf)

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