Victoria White: A universal basic income would work wonders for Irish society

A basic income should be paid to every citizen over 18, whether they work or not, and there should be no limit, except taxation, on how much more money they choose to earn.

Victoria White: A universal basic income would work wonders for Irish society

A basic income should be paid to every citizen over 18, whether they work or not, and there should be no limit, except taxation, on how much more money they choose to earn.

The income would replace most other social welfare payments, ending the requirement to plead your need and to limit your economic activity to qualify.

This universal basic income is being explored at local level from Scotland to Kenya, but has yet to work at nation-state level anywhere.

Something similar was famously trialled in the Canadian city of Dauphin, Manitoba, between 1974 and 1978.

Every family was given 60% of the agreed living wage for their family size and then taxed at 50% of every dollar they earned on top of that.

Poor families grew richer. Hospital visits and mental health statistics decreased, while school-completion statistics increased.

Finland recently experimented with paying basic income to a section of the unemployed population, to see if they would be more likely to work if they didn’t lose money by doing so.

They weren’t and the experiment has been deemed a failure.

I think the premise was all wrong.

Universal basic income (UBI) should be about getting away from the Protestant work ethic, not promoting it, though it was this potentially depressing impact on productivity that put the ERSI off the idea here, when explored in a green paper in 2002.

This work ethic destroys many people’s health, both physical and mental, and destroys our environment by prioritising economic growth over wellbeing.


It only counts work that appears on a balance sheet: The €24bn worth of unpaid work that Irish women do annually, on average, would be roughly 12% of our national income, but is simply invisible.

I have spent 17 years working in the home, caring for children, one of whom is disabled, and I resent the obliteration of that work from the mind of the nation.

My belief in a UBI was formed long before I became a mother, though.

When I was a young woman, working as a writer and socialising in artistic circles, it would not have occurred to me to base my estimation of the value of people’s work on the amount of money it earned them.

What mattered was making enough money to pay rent and food, so that the art could be produced.

There was very little employment and social welfare offices turned a blind eye to artists who used their unemployment assistance and rent allowance to keep them while they made art.

My friends and I used social welfare payments as our UBI, propped up with precarious employment.

We had a great time and lots of art was made, some of which is still developing and brightening up this wet and windy island of ours.

In the unemployment Ireland of the mid-1980s to the nearly 1990s, there were amazing pockets of pure bohemia in Dublin, Cork, Galway, and elsewhere.

None of us yet had children and rents were low; while universal basic income would make it easier to live in rural areas where rents are lower and employment harder to get, the housing crisis would have to be tackled first, if it were to work in Irish cities.

It wasn’t just the rental market that was different then, though; sub-employment was acceptable, because there wasn’t much choice. It isn’t acceptable nowadays.

That’s the fault of the left as well as of the right.

The Irish Labour Party, as its name suggests, often refers to itself as the “party of work”.

Former social protection minister Joan Burton frequently used this term as she introduced, from 2012 onwards, a series of cuts to the one-parent family payment, by which lone parents were forcibly deemed “jobseekers” from the time their youngest child turned seven.

This was outrageous. It has increased child poverty in lone-parent households.

More chilling was the ideology behind the cuts: That caring for children was idling and paid work made people free.

Previous financial support of lone parents was described as “passive in nature”: now, lone parents would be subjected to work “activation”.

How could caring for young children be described as passive? Is work only work when there is a payslip to prove it?

Where does that kind of ideology leave thousands of Irish people: carers of young children, of the elderly, of the disabled?

The elderly and the disabled themselves? Struggling artists? The sick and convalescent? Are they not people? Do they become fractions of people when they earn some money?

Much of the rhetoric behind work for the disabled promotes the dangerous idea that participation in society should depend on being paid to work.

I hate this idea. I hate how it ignores the Earth’s limited natural capital.

As a woman who firmly believed Mammy and Daddy should both go to work full-time, it was a revelation when I read how it would damage the environment if every couple worked two full-time jobs and commuted to them, and yet that has been the policy goal of every Irish government since 1999.

The times they are a-changin’ for the Irish Labour Party.

Joan Burton failed to hold her seat.

Newer brooms, such as would-be leader Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, his proposer Ged Nash, and Cork East TD Sean Sherlock, may have different concepts of work: Ó Ríordáin’s response to a question on the savaging of one-parent family payment was that the electorate had given the party their answer on that; in 2017, Sherlock opened a debate on universal basic income in the Labour Party by arguing that it had to be explored in the context of the threat that robotics posed to traditional employment patterns.

Even the old-school Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader, vowed to pilot UBI in three cities, if elected in the recent British general election. We know how that went down.

Since its formation, in 1981, the Irish Green Party has promoted UBI.

While the Social Democrats don’t as yet have a formal policyon UBI, one of its councillors, Dave Quinn, describes himself as an “ardent advocate of basic income” and has written a policy document proposing an annual basic income of €10,000 a year for every adult.

Sinn Féin, by far the most popular left-wing party in the current Dáil, has no policy on basic income.

Centrist Fianna Fáil, which expanded UBI payments to the old and the young and the disabled, in the form of the old-age pension and child benefit and disability allowance, has committed to establishing a commission on UBI and a pilot project.

Fine Gael, speaking up for the people who go to work early in the morning, rejects the idea.

Whether or not UBI lands in a programme for government will tell us a lot about the ideological direction of the new administration.


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