Speech at ‘Poverty is Political’, Green Party conference 1 March 2014


(Cartoon credit: Stephanie McMillan 2011 http://stephaniemcmillan.org/)

The following is a transcription of a speech Barb Jacobson gave at the Green Party Conference in Liverpool, on 1st March, 2014.

Barb Jacobson, Basic Income UK

First of all I’d like to give my thanks to Keith Taylor for inviting me to speak at this meeting, and my congratulations to the Green Party for deciding to put more emphasis on its commitment to citizens income. It could not come at a better time.

The European Citizens Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income ran from 14 January 2013 to 14 January 2014. Despite problems at the beginning, to do with how ECIs have been set up by the EC, which meant that we couldn’t start collecting signatures until over two months later; despite the fact that there was no funded organisation behind it – the countries involved went from 13 to 25, and we collected the support of over 287,000 people throughout Europe. As momentum built, in the two last months the Europe-wide signatures doubled, and we doubled the number of signatures from the UK over the last two weeks of the ECI. I’m also happy to say that 34 MEPs, including both UK Green MEPs: Keith, here, and Jean Lambert, signed a statement in support of this ECI last November.

Interest was most keen in Eastern Europe, with Estonia, Croatia, Slovenia and Bulgaria four of the six countries which met their quota. Bulgaria’s achievement was the most spectacular; after they won the support of their equivalent of the TUC, their signatures increased by 20,000 in just three days.

Since then a network of organisations and individuals has formed into Unconditional Basic Income Europe. We’re having a conference in Brussels on 10 April where we will be speaking with MEPs, and other European organisations and people interested in reducing poverty, promoting physical and mental health, education and ecological sustainability – about unconditional basic income’s potential to help with all these issues.


Why do I support unconditional basic, or citizens income? I have been a student, feminist, welfare claimant, waitress, secretary, journalist, community organiser, mother – all of these jobs with very little – or no – income attached. I still do some of these things. Currently I am paid to be a housing and benefits adviser, and I’m here to say that I’d be very happy if citizens income cost me my current job.

Often I am involved, sometimes for months, helping people untangle the DWP’s lies and neglect – just so they (and I) can survive. This process is colossal waste of everyone’s time – my clients, mine, call-centre workers, DWP officers, ATOS interviewers, doctors, council workers, social workers, even postal workers…

Many thousands of computers several times more powerful than those used to get to the moon are dedicated to keeping track, and whole forests felled in order to communicate the judgements which result. Are people really so worried that a few might get ‘something for nothing’ that they will tolerate this waste of millions of people’s lives, as well as the vast energy and other resources dedicated to running this system? Does this really contribute to a better society for all?

Leaving aside for a moment the current spate of government sadism over benefit conditions, every week I see the problems caused by means-testing. The primary one is the high effective tax rate of 85%; if people work and still qualify for benefits they can only keep 15% of any extra money they make. This is the real cause of the ‘benefit trap’, not the supposedly easy money. There is also the problem that with the increase of more flexible, precarious contracts, people need to spend more and more time making and adjusting their claims, with a corresponding extra burden on the bureaucracies which administer them. That is, as long as they’re not on zero-hour contracts, which means that while they might not be ’employed’ in the sense of earning money by working, they are still ‘unavailable for work.’

People are understandably reluctant to allow the several sets of bureaucrats usually necessary to claim their full entitlement, to delve into their personal finances. This is particularly true of pensioners who have usually been paying into the system for years, and qualify for Pension Credit. Then there is the shame felt by those who find they need the money. I’ve seen many people ruin all other aspects of their lives by going into debt – losing family relationships, friendships, their homes – before they finally claim the means-tested benefits they were eligible for in the first place.

Are people really so worried that a few might get 'something for nothing' that they will tolerate this waste of millions of people's lives, as well as the vast energy and other resources dedicated to running this system?

My job should not have to exist. I have no doubt that at the moment I’m doing socially useful, indeed necessary, work right now. I would, however, be far happier if: first, our benefits system didn’t have to be negotiated with other people’s help (increasingly this is necessary no matter who you are – how literate, how educated, how computer savvy); and second, I want more time to do – and think about – other things. Whether that would be ‘work’ in other people’s eyes I don’t know.

I have been fighting housing, welfare and health cuts since 1981. I am tired of losing.

Some battles have been won. Squatters saved much of the Georgian and Victorian fabric of London in the 1970s and 80s, only to see it re-privatised in the 2000s – and now it’s been criminalised. Universal child benefit was preserved from many attacks until just last year. Punitive sanctions on benefit payments were delayed until the last Labour government. A few clinics and hospitals have been saved from closure, while the NHS as a whole has been pulled apart.

It’s all been defensive, with little notion of which halcyon time to go back to. The 1970s, or as is bandied around now, 1948? This government is taking us back to 1839, with the most punitive welfare regime since the Poor Laws.

The government has constructed a virtual workhouse, whose main purpose is not to help people in distress, but to make the benefits system so vile people will avoid it at all costs. There are the Jobseeker’s Agreements which force people to apply for up to 50 jobs a week, even in rural areas, under the threat that the little money they get to survive on will be cut. These sanctions take no account of people’s circumstances and are imposed for the most trivial of reasons. People are expected to do workfare – even within profit-making enterprises – even while sanctions have been imposed.

For people with disabilities, the situation is even worse. Work Capability Assessments take no account of all the work and expense of diagnosis which has already taken place in the NHS. If you can watch East Enders for half an hour, if you can lift an empty box, if your dress is tidy, you’re deemed by ATOS to be fit for work, no matter how serious your actual physical or mental condition.

Far from helping people to find and train for work which suits them and their actual capabilities, these measures – along with the bedroom tax and benefit cap – actually undermine and further exclude claimants from the few jobs which open up. The Work Programme, as applied to people both with and without disabilities, is the new oakum picking.

This is not social security, but social sadism. And I have not even mentioned the bedroom tax and benefit cap.

We need a positive demand, to inspire us to fight for a better society than what has gone before. Citizens income, or what many call unconditional basic income, is the best I have found so far. Surely it’s better to give people money, and let them decide what to do with it. We know that giving money to poor people increases local spending, multiplying its value by four to five times, in terms of increasing local jobs and other economic activity. And most crucially citizen income enables us to decide how to use our time – it allows us to be free of stress, overwork, humiliation and the bureaucratic nightmares I encounter every week.

The principle of unconditionality is I think paramount to making welfare liberating for all, especially those who need it most. Citizens income will remove the shame of ‘not having enough’ and is also the simplest and most practical way to provide social security.

Many worry about citizens income being unconditional. Some people might do nothing, they say, without looking at the evidence of several pilot studies of unconditional cash transfers across the world, which prove that people actually become more economically active, as well as better fed, healthier, more likely to get an education, less likely to commit crime.

But regardless, aren’t there some people you can think of, who might indeed do us all a favour if they stopped working altogether and spent more time on their yachts?

Many worry about citizens income giving money to the ‘non-poor’, even the ‘rich’. But how is the question of who is ‘poor enough’ to be decided? By whom? And where is that line to be drawn?

Many worry about citizens income giving money to the 'non-poor', even the 'rich'. But how is the question of who is 'poor enough' to be decided? By whom? And where is that line to be drawn?

While still recognising that millions are suffering unconscionable levels of material hardship, there is a problem with how we define poverty. Isn’t a woman trapped by financial dependence on a violent, or even just boring, husband, “poor” no matter how wealthy he might be? Isn’t any person trapped in a job which is demeaning, dull, socially useless, or physically damaging, in some essential way ‘poor’, no matter how high their actual wage?

And why should jobs which contribute to the impoverishment of our environment be allowed at all? They damage the well-being of the people who do them, and endanger other human beings and species. If we want to get rid of these – and I feel we will have to somehow, if humans want to survive more than another few generations – won’t the people who currently do them also need to live, while they and we figure out a less harmful mode of existence?

Of course there are many things not being done right now which are desperately needed. We need to develop and extend renewable energy sources. We need to clean up the environmental messes already inflicted across the globe. We need to build decent sewage and water systems for all, along with housing, healthcare, education globally…all of which would cost a fraction of current world military expenditure, or what has been dedicated to saving the banks.

But while millions of mothers have to cross oceans in order to feed their children, often only to end up looking after other people’s children or elderly relatives; while coming up with exotic financial ‘products’ is  for many scientists an easier way to make a living than basic research, and can even win a Nobel Prize – how can we as a species ever pay the proper attention to what it is really necessary to do?

Above all, why is it necessary to have a job, to be considered ’employed’, when the most valuable work in our society is unpaid? Unless, that is, you live off rents or dividends – in other words, directly off other people’s labour? Wouldn’t it be better to pool this surplus, and distribute it more equally, along with the work itself? Citizens Income, paid to all individuals, would remove the stigma of not having a wage, and would give people time to attend to the essential things neither governments nor the markets pay for. We all have a share in this earth, and citizens income is our share of the economy.

Barb Jacobson, Basic Income UK

Photos Courtesy of:


Solidarity Federation

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