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Are We Owed a Living?

Interest in universal basic income, that is to say a payment to every individual regardless of work or means, has resurged in the last two to three years. It is an old idea, originally connected to the enclosures and the loss of common land people used for subsistence. It has been called a variety of names over the years: citizen’s income, social credit, citizen’s wage, social dividend, guaranteed income among others.

One of the first people to propose the need for an unconditional income was Thomas Paine. The hero of Moncure Conway, he mooted a version of this idea in Agrarian Justice in 1796, where couples would get a lump sum when they married, and people over 50 would receive a pension for life, on the basis that it would be compensation for their lack of access to land, and paid for by taxing land owners on the rents they collect. Since then many economists, thinkers and campaigners, as diverse as JS Mill, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, Friedrich von Hayek, Erich Fromm, Buckminster Fuller and Martin Luther King have supported some form of basic income.

Currently basic income is gathering a global movement, with activists in almost every country. Many are inspired by the fear of some, and hope of others, that robots will take over a large percentage of paid work and many jobs will be eliminated. Others, in the spirit of Paine, see it as a just recompense for privately-held resources which should be our common inheritance. Others see it as a way to win financial independence and recognition for people, especially women, who do the largely unpaid work of caring for others in society. Still others see it as a way to kick-start the sluggish demand we see in most economies. Finally there are those who look to basic income as a passport to freedom from a ‘labour market’ which is really an ‘employers market’ when the only options for most people are to work or to starve.

As pointed out by a Haitian activist a few years ago, the idea of an unconditional, universal basic income replaces St Paul’s saying that ‘He who will not work, shall not eat’ with ‘He who does not eat, cannot work’. As such it challenges age-old assumptions about work, most particularly the work ethic.


The Work Ethic

The work ethic as we know it today: that work of whatever kind is good for the soul, and indeed is a just requirement for the privilege of eating – along with early ideas about social support, (which started in Europe in the 16th century) arose with the codification of rights over the land. During the feudal era land might be controlled by a king and his courtiers, but ultimately it was the ‘property’ of god, and aristocrats at least owed military protection to those who worked on it. As property rights became codified people were thrown off common lands, and in the wake of the dissolution of the monasteries in the UK and the help they gave the poor, the work ethic became a powerful excuse to not look after people who now either had no access to land, or no job in the towns. Hard work was seen as an indicator by Protestants that one was part of God’s elect, and having no work was seen as a curse by God, leaving those who did earn a living by work under no obligation to support those who did not. Although it did valorise manual labour which had been (and continued to be) scorned by aristocrats since Ancient Greece, it also justified the hoarding, rather than sharing, the fruits of one’s labours.

One can see this theology being played out in the sanctioning regime ratcheted up during the latest welfare reforms. Whatever one thinks about these, there is little doubt that Iain Duncan Smith sincerely felt he was helping people by taking their money away if they didn’t comply with the new rules.

What have been the real effects of these reforms supposedly implemented to foster a better ‘work ethic’, not only to benefits, but to rights to housing? I’d like to spend a little time talking about what I’ve seen as an independent benefits advisor in a local charity.



Secure, affordable and safe housing, that most fundamental human necessity besides food, is out of reach for more and more people. Successive governments have reduced the stock of social housing in the UK, mainly by privatisation through Right to Buy and the neglect to build more. The current bill before the Lords further undermines the security of social housing – both by setting time limits on tenancies, and penalising those who manage to earn a modest income by raising their rents. Extending Right to Buy to housing association tenants will further reduce the stock of genuinely affordable housing.

Go to any gathering of people under 40, and the talk is all about rents and landlords. Housing security simply doesn’t exist for this generation, and it is not just because private rents are too high and social housing is all but unavailable. Tenancies in the private sector now have little real meaning for tenants no matter how much they pay. If your heating doesn’t work, or there is mould, or even if the ceiling falls in because the roof hasn’t been maintained – complaints about disrepair these days very often results in an eviction notice. Standards governing overcrowding, while they still exist, are all but unenforceable. This has particularly affected flats on council estates – often originally built to space and light standards proven to promote health, those properties used for private lets are being chopped up to accommodate more people. It is not uncommon to see flats originally intended for one person or a couple stuffed with six or more people. The sharing of beds in shifts has also become common, where it was almost unheard of here 20 years ago.

Housing in London has truly gone back to the Victorian age. Outside London in particular, where little housing for childless households was built, the bedroom tax has meant a hike in the total Housing Benefit bill as people have been forced to find smaller properties available only in the private rented sector. All of this has made it more difficult for people to form and feel secure in settled communities. Many long-standing communities throughout the UK have been broken up by the combination of the welfare reforms, RTB tenants selling on to buy-to-let landlords, and the predations of developers.

Claiming benefits, in and of itself, is hard work.


In the last few years, politicians of all stripes have been loudly announcing their support of ‘hard-working’ people on the one hand, while instituting policies which mitigate against people working. Those who need financial support between jobs, or because their disabilities are such that doing a job is difficult or impossible, are now plagued with extraordinary demands on their time and energies to service their claim for support. Thousands have had that support withdrawn entirely for extended periods, often for petty infractions of the rules, or by contradictory demands made by those who run this system. Most would agree that it is impossible to attend both a job interview and a meeting at the job centre at the same time, yet many have had their support taken away for precisely this reason. Most would agree that it is difficult to find and hold down a job without access to food, shelter, transport, training and these days telecoms in the form of a telephone or computer. Yet this is precisely what we deny those looking for paid work, to say nothing of those looking to employ themselves in a creative and useful way.

Most would agree that the ability to push a button, or sit for extended periods of time, or lift a cardboard box with one hand (if not the other), are not good indications of one’s general employability – yet thousands have had support for living with serious health conditions taken away for precisely these reasons. The hard work of doctors and other health workers to diagnose and treat physical and mental health problems, which we have already paid for through the NHS, is thrown out the window by these tests. And while the shortage of doctors and nurses within the NHS is acknowledged as huge problem, thousands of trained health professionals have been diverted into re-testing people for benefits in a way which is neither medically nor scientifically proven, assessing people with conditions these professionals are not necessarily qualified to judge, using a tick-box form and a point system for each impairment.


Perverse Decisions

This is not only a huge waste of money in itself, but tribunal challenges to the decisions arrived at like this (35% successful without an outside advisor, 60-80% successful with an adviser) are a further burden on GPs and specialists. The stress it is putting claimants under is exacerbating their ailments, and causing new ones.

It also leads to perverse decisions: one woman I saw a few months ago looked as though she had just come from a concentration camp. Her elbows were nearly breaking out of her skin, and she had a sheaf of information from doctors about the physical ailment which was causing this. Her Work Capability Assessment not only claimed that she was somehow ‘fit for work’; it entirely ignored her physical problems while emphasising possible mental health issues.

These, if they had read the information provided by her doctors, were obviously a result of her devastating physical illness. Even worse than all this, the woman herself was so ashamed to be claiming benefits she told me she had cut herself off from her closest friends, and thus had no emotional support.

If a person with a fluctuating health condition volunteers at a community centre for a few hours a week, this makes them vulnerable to being labeled ‘fit’ for a 9-5 job. If someone admits to watching EastEnders for half an hour each day, they are often deemed able to concentrate on a computer screen at a 9-5 job. If they get to the assessment, no matter by what extraordinary effort and stress, this can be deemed as evidence they can go to a job every day. People are dying from this regime – at least 60 by suicide after having their benefits taken away, some thousands of their ailments shortly after being found ‘fit for work’.

The waste of time is phenomenal for people without disabilities as well. Not only are ‘jobseekers’ expected to apply for up to 40 jobs every week (regardless of the actual number of job vacancies in their area) they are not allowed to chose training which might help them. Instead claimants are sent on pointless ‘back to work’ sessions which don’t go beyond basic literacy and numeracy and CV writing, no matter how much education the claimant has already had. Workfare is a joke (except for those forced to do it), used by many private companies for cheap labour – and in many cases to replace paid jobs. Some may recall a court case two years ago where a trained geologist was forced to stack shelves at Poundland rather than hone her skills by volunteering at a museum. That this ultimately would make her more employable in her chosen field made no difference. Between workfare and sanctions, people who need benefits face regimes worse than those doing community service for crimes. We do not expect people in prisons for more serious offences to live without shelter, food and heat – yet this is somehow reasonable for people without jobs.

On top of all this people who do manage to get through the maze of this system and find paid employment, discover that they can only keep 2-25p of every pound earned. This is a marginal tax rate of 75-98% depending on the benefit they’re eligible for. Ironically this is what the Labour government was accused of doing to the wealthy in the 1970s, although these taxes were only applied to share and rental income, not income they earned through working.


People Made Less Capable

What is apparent, at least to me as a benefits advisor, is that this system makes people less capable of doing a job, or otherwise contributing to society. Young people are moving constantly from one high-rent flat to another and cannot lay down roots in a community. People who lose their jobs and can’t find another one straight away are not allowed to keep their skills up by doing appropriate volunteer work, and face constant harassment. Those with physical and mental health problems face continuous demands to prove they still have disabilities, even after they manage to win approval for support. What we have now is not so much a social security system as a social insecurity system.

And this is not even to begin to deal with the insecurity faced by those who are employed with the rise short-term and zero-hour contracts. While many do want flexible hours and part-time jobs to enable care responsibilities or other unpaid work, they find they have little control over when they work. They cannot plan for the future, because more often than not they do not know from one week to the next, or even one day to the next, how much they will earn, or when they will work.

Much lip-service is paid to ‘hard working people’, and the social and psychological benefits of paid employment, and this is used to justify this social insecurity. Yet when you look at the situation of people who do have jobs or small businesses, again we see that the deck is stacked against those who do paid work to earn their living.

Over the past 40 years or so taxes have shifted away from corporate profits, capital gains and rents. This is income which is not earned directly through work, but taken as an entitlement by those people who happen to own property, capital, plant or patents. Often these rentiers’ ancestors were those who originally benefited from land enclosures. Taxes on this free income used to be as high as 80-90%, and are now down to 20% or less – while taxes on income earned through one’s own labour hovers around 30%, and high earners have recently seen the threshold for the 45% tax rate go up, while even that rate has gone down from 50%. Recent rises in the tax allowance have masked the fact that the allowance made before national insurance is collected has not gone up, and remains at around £8600.


Hidden Wealth Off-shore

This is of course before we consider the huge gains the already wealthy and large corporations make by hiding their money and ownership off-shore or by juggling profits and loans between countries to avoid taxes. The wealth thus hidden is estimated to be some 31 trillions of dollars worldwide, with an estimated £34 billion lost to the British treasury via taxes thus avoided. The system is basically saying that if you can afford a battery of accountants and lawyers to play these loopholes for you, it’s quite acceptable to hoard your wealth (whether you worked to earn it or not) without needing to pay anything back to the society you live in. Indeed in these circles you are considered eccentric or foolish if you do pay taxes.

Then there is the inverse relationship between how useful your work is, and how much income you can get for it. By ‘socially useful work’ I mean work which would be missed, or which would endanger the functioning of society if it went undone. At the bottom of course is the most important work of looking after others – work which within families is entirely unpaid.

When it is paid, this is usually at the lowest rates and under the most insecure conditions. In the middle (and often also on low incomes) are people like nurses, refuse collectors, teachers, builders, local public employees, farmers, transport workers, office cleaners – themselves increasingly working under precarious, zero hour contracts.

Among the professions, journalism is the most obviously de-valued category – much paid work has been swept away by the rise of the internet. Here again though the inverse rule applies: Boris Johnson, for example, is said to net £275k a year for his weekly Telegraph opinion column (which of course we all need to read); while people who are doing the hugely necessary investigative work into the functioning of government and business are now for the most part working freelance, and struggle to eat and pay their rent. The rates for freelance journalism have plummeted: you’re lucky these days to get £80 for 1000 words where 30 years ago the rate was 2-300 pounds. More and more people who do this vital work depend on the patronage of their readership via donations, yet publicists are often highly paid.

Corporate office workers might get a decent rate of pay, but again this is often in inverse proportion to their direct involvement with the day-to-day functioning of the corporation they work for. With the proliferation of middle management positions, even if they are relatively well-paid, many suffer from the anomie of feeling as though their work counts for nothing. Thus the huge popularity of David Graeber’s essay on bull-shit jobs a couple years ago – and the growing recognition that much of what we call ‘work’ does not need to be done.

At the top of the income scale we largely see people who, if they packed up and stopped working tomorrow, hardly anyone apart from their immediate family would notice. Indeed I wonder sometimes, especially in the case of property and commodity speculators, arms dealers, and many members of national government whether elected or not, whether the work they do might be better left entirely undone.


Winner-take-all System of Copyrights

Then there is the question of the winner-take-all system of copyrights and patents. No one does this in a vacuum, no matter how smart and talented, no matter how hard they personally work on their creations. If they do not have the direct support of their families, or government research grants (paid of course by taxpayers) or what used to be an actual social security system, they live in a society which one way or another has supplied their needs. From the mothers who changed their nappies, to the farmers who supply their food, society has supported their efforts to develop the skills and learn the information which contributed to their ideas or creations.

Yet in the case of artists or independent inventors one creation can be enough to set them up for life, and their heirs for the next 70 years – although more often than not their work is actually owned by corporations. It is no wonder that large corporations are so keen to buy the copyrights to popular back catalogues, and to extend patent rights to even the human discovery of plant and animal genes certainly not ‘invented’ by us. It is a license not only to collect rents on those discoveries and creations, but also to control the use of what could be breakthroughs for all society. With no ‘work’ at all.

While cash lottery winners are envied and often praised for their luck, those unlucky enough to be homeless or have to claim benefits are despised. We are all subject to a lottery at birth. We have no control over where, and to whom, we are born. Some people successfully overcome the disadvantages they have faced in this lottery, almost always with the support of family, and until recently with the support of a social security system and free education. Statistics show that most individuals however, no matter how hard they work, do not – and with the advent of our social insecurity system, decreasing wage levels and increasing personal debt, this is increasingly so. Wealth and income inequalities are wider than they have been for 100 years, and while services and benefits have been slashed for the poorest and for even ‘average’ waged workers, the wealthiest have increased both their wealth and their control over resources, many without lifting a finger.

So do we really have a work ethic, which applies to all? I would say no – we have something which is used to harass those who cannot do or find paid work, the poorest and most vulnerable among us, who more often than not still struggle to make a contribution to society and those around them. This ungenerous attitude means that the next Einstein or JK Rowling is probably stuck stacking shelves at Poundland, wasting their education if they had one. This denies all of us the fruits of talents and ideas that might otherwise benefit all. Meanwhile we leave the entitlements of the wealthy untouched – whether they actually did work their way into that position, or were born into it.

Most people are already working too hard – whether to survive poverty, or to maintain a position of relative comfort. Often their efforts are entirely focussed on getting a wage, no matter whether that activity contributes to, or hurts, the health and wellbeing of themselves, those around them and/or the environment we all share. While the Protestant work ethic might have been an advance on the aristocratic disdain for any form of work, it is arguable whether this ‘ethic’ has ever been used for truly ethical ends. More often than not it has been used to browbeat people into accepting longer working hours, for less security, to defer a passion which might aid society in the interests of individual survival. And ironically, the work ethic really applies only to people without other forms of income.


Productivity Falling

And it is literally counter-productive. The number of people employed might be going up but actual productivity is going down. The UK, famous for its cultural creativity when artists, actors and musicians could develop their talents on the dole, has lost its place as a leader in these fields now that only children of the wealthy can afford creative creative activity. One of the striking results of recent pilot studies of basic income is that people’s economic activity goes up – not so much in jobs, but by employing themselves in small business. Social insecurity leads not to a strengthening of anyone’s work ethic, but to a banalisation of work.

Whether the technological jobs apocalypse as hyped in the press actually happens or not, what is certain is that there is no ethical – or even practical – reason any more for people to hoard money or control over resources. The robots – or rather the people who own them – need to be taxed fairly so that all might share in the benefits of current technology, and hopefully make advances on it.

Basic income for me is one way of doing that. In the 1930s Robert Heinlein, in his first novel For Us, the Living, called it a ‘Heritage Payment’ in recognition that all of our creations and discoveries build on those of our ancestors, a few known but mostly anonymous – and any profits from these should go into a common pot to be shared by all. The world, or at least those who control our money and resources, certainly do owe all of us a living – and from that we can build a better one.

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