Basic Income: Can we afford *not* to have it?


The Wage Slave Dilemma. Cartoon by Stephanie McMillan 2011

There was an almighty kerfuffle a few weeks ago over over the Green Party’s plans for Citizen’s Income. Many articles have come out both for and against, but all have missed the key question: can we afford not to have a basic income?

Consider the costs of poverty: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Child Poverty Action Group came out with a study last year which estimated that child poverty costs ‘the country’ or taxpayers, £29 billion in 2013 or £1,098 per household. Similar figures aren’t available for adults, but in 2013 homelessness alone cost £1 billion, or £26,000 a year per homeless person. Malnutrition cost £7.5 billion in 2003 – no later figures are available, and with the exponential rise in food banks since then one can only assume this is now much higher. Ill health related to poor diet cost the NHS £5.8 billion in 2006/7. Insurance claims for domestic burglary amount to £1.3 million a day, or some £474.5 billion a year. In 2012/3 the cost of keeping each person in prison: nearly £37,000/year, or £3.2 billion in total. According to the same report, a survey in 2005 said that over 23,000 prisoners (or just under half) had ‘financial problems linked to their offending’. The 2012/13 cost of sending a teenager to prison: £100,000 per year (more than it would cost to send them to a private school). Although not always a crime of poverty, but certainly exacerbated by it – the cost of police and hospital resources spent helping victims of domestic violence was £3.8 billion in 2009, and to the wider economy, an estimated £15.7 billion. Cost of poor housing to the NHS: £67 million. £1 in 4 spent on heating homes in Britain is wasted due to poor insulation, which would on average cost only £3000 per household to remedy.

It also costs more to be poor. People on low incomes pay substantially more for fuel, goods on credit than people on higher incomes, and a far higher proportion of their income on taxes.

Consider the cost of overwork: at 42.2 hours a week lazy old Greece tops the table of hours worked a week in Europe; the UK ranks in the middle at 36.3 hours a week. Stress at work was estimated by the Work Foundation in 2007 to cost somewhere between £7 billion and £12 billion a year.

Overworked bankers, on the other hand, have received government subsidies to the tune of £1.021 trillion whether as direct bailouts, QE, bond issues or just plain promises – since 2008: £18,750 per person in the UK. (Including immigrants.) Understandably, a lot of people are saying: “Don’t tell me the money for basic income isn’t out there.”

Shouldn’t a humane economy recognise the cost of ‘bullshit’ jobs as well? The fact that anyone spends their time on earth doing things no one would miss on any practical or aesthetic level is a huge waste of human potential.

Buckminster Fuller put it this way: the savings generated from stopping what he called ‘non-livingry’ jobs – jobs which contribute nothing to human survival – would pay everyone enough, for example, to stop driving their cars to work. Having calculated in 1984 that every gallon of petrol costs nature $1 million in kilowatt hours, he said this: ‘[people could] remember “what was I thinking about when they told me I had to earn my living?‘ (Critical Path, 1981)

Harmful work, whether to oneself, others, or the environment is readily costed. Subsidies for fracking: £100,000 per well. 2013 value of defence industries, including £12 billion in the arms trade, £35 billion. Cost of cleaning up Sellafield: £70 billion and counting. Cost of Trident’s current operation: £2.4 billion a year; replacement estimated in 2006/7 prices at £15-20 billion. Cost of dealing with work-related injuries and ill-health: £14.2 billion. Figures for the annual cost of debt collection are hard to find, but personal debt now stands at its highest ever, a staggering £1.5 trillion, owed by 47% of households.

The cost of disappearing work, wages and taxes: some estimates put the loss of UK jobs to technology over the next 20 years at 11 million, and this could be a low estimate. We know for sure that over the past 30 years UK mean wages have not kept up with productivity, falling behind by some 43%. Where’s all that extra money gone? Furthermore, £119.4 billion, or some one-half of what the Green Party’s Citizens Income plan would cost, is hidden through tax evasion.

No-one’s claiming that basic income would solve all these problems at a stroke. But it would give everyone a breather, boost economic activity and ease demand on the NHS and social services. Within the movement for basic income world-wide there are dozens of different schemes for how to pay it, how it should be introduced, how much it should be, what other universal, collectively provided services it should include, whether it should be an unconditional negative income tax, or in a new currency, or even paid by Facebook.

The problem is not the money, the problem is how do we live, and all thrive. Whether rich or poor. We hope the Green Party keep their nerve over Citizen’s Income policy, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

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