Michael Clifford: Is it now time to give some real thought to Universal Basic Income in Ireland?

Before the crisis, they met monthly in a room in the Dublin Institute of Technology, writes Michael Clifford.
Michael Clifford: Is it now time to give some real thought to Universal Basic Income in Ireland?

Before the crisis, they met monthly in a room in the Dublin Institute of Technology, writes Michael Clifford.

A core group of around a dozen people usually showed up for the Basic Income Ireland meeting on a Wednesday in the Aungier Street building.

They discussed the next campaign, research that had surfaced from basic income experiments around the globe, review a book that explored the subject.

“If we had a basic income in place before this happened, there would have been a cushion there,” says Anne Ryan, a co-ordinator with Basic Income Ireland.

“This is a time that people are losing jobs very quickly and although supports have been put in place people will fall through the cracks. If a basic income was there it would act as a safety net.”

The crisis prompted Ryan and her colleagues to issue a petition for a “unconditional Universal Basic Income of at least €203 per week to all legal residents between 18 and state pension age, starting as quickly as possible.”

The petition was announced on midday on 24 March. Within four hours, Leo Varadkar was announcing that the original emergency Covid payment of €203 was being raised to €350.

There was no connection between the two but the raising of the emergency payment showed the speed at which events are occurring and a realisation that most people would simply find it extremely difficult to live on the first payment.

Will the crisis present opportunity for a rethink on schemes such as Basic Income? Time and the recovery will tell, but there is no doubt that the crisis is prompting may to ask about how we are living and whether now is the time to re-evaluate how society is structured.

Among those with such an opinion is the President, Michael D Higgins. Speaking to Pat Kenny on Newstalk last week, President Higgins outlined the direction he felt the country, and the wider world, should embark on when we reach the other side.

“What is going to emerge globally is that there is an unanswerable case now both globally and regionally in the European Union for having a universal basic services, he said.

“That is a flow of basic services that will be there to protect us in the future, from which we can depart to be able to live, for people to hae a sufficiency for what they need. This is what happened after the war, this is what happened after her Great Recession in 1929.”

The reaching for a different way of doing things has been prompted to some extent by the solidarity on display across society. More pertinently has been the government’s reaction to the crisis. Responding to the sudden shock to the economy, the caretaker government has acted in a manner that would have been unthinkable six weeks ago.

The emergency Covid Payment of €350 has been mentioned above; a wage subsidy for firms who have lost 25% of their income. A freeze on rents and a stop on evictions from properties; the subsuming of the private health service into the public one.

All of these measures have been repeatedly cited, to a greater or lesser extent, by organisations advocating for equality for years. Yet the stock response was it simply could not be done. When the crisis was big enough it was done in jig time.

There will be a large bill to pay when the country and world emerges at the other side of this crisis. But the suggestion from the president down is that values and focus could be realigned in a more inclusive manner.

Proponents of a Universal Basic Income like Anne Ryan have been advocating for it as the route to a more equitable and sustainable society. The concept has been around for decades.

Its primary tenet is that every adult, irrespective of circumstances, receive an income from the state. This ensures that poverty traps are avoided. Those in work, at all wage and salary levels, receive it.

Those out of work are also paid. Effectively, it provides a floor below which society concurs it would be difficult to subsist. To its proponents it reflects an egalitarian principle. Opponents see it as a disincentive to work and, at the other end of the scale, spending public money on people who simply don’t need it.

“I think when we are eventually post crisis people will see value in having a system of basic income,” Anne Ryan says.

“Some businesses will survive and others won’t and people could start a business of their own if there was a safety floor there. It could give them a chance to put wheels on ideas. We would see it very much as an investment in rebuilding.”

Other groups also see the prospect of doing things differently on the far side of the crisis. Social Justice Ireland, the think tank that advocates for equality and a sustainable future has also taken the opportunity to present what it says should be a “new social contract”.

“As part of this social contract arrangement in a modern democratic society, citizens may expect; access to meaningful work, as well as protection from poverty at times where paid employment is not accessible,” the proposal states.

It goes on to include a minimum floor of income “in times of old age, disability or infirmity” and a proper education system and guarantee that needs will be met at times of ill-health.

In return, the contract expects citizens “to contribute to society in different ways at different points in the lifecycle.”

Michelle Murphy, policy analyst with SJI, says that the virus crisis has changed everything.

“People have seen what you can actually do if there is real will there,” she says.

“In the space of three weeks our health system has more or less become a public health system. Look at childcare. All of a sudden we have a national childcare system.

“We seem to be able to do these things when faced with a huge crisis and it’s going to be difficult to roll back from that. Things have changed and I don’t think we can ever go back. Everybody is now thinking on a personal level what is and is not important to them. The political system should use this opportunity to start as discourse to think about exactly what kind of society we want.”

Political will holds the key to any big changes in society. It is as yet too soon to know how exactly the country will emerge and therefore Whether the scars left will on the national psyche will be so deep as to demand significant change in how we live.

Will, for instance, the vested interests that drive much of the political culture retain their power? Will a government facing into what many expect to be a deep recession be equipped to make these changes?

Is there any chance that the political culture could collectively bypass its first instinct to give priority to the short term and instead address the big picture?

Economist Jim Power is not optimistic on that front. “You would hope that certain elements of this (crisis) would make people reassess,” he says.

“Look at the fact there is currently no traffic and the impact that has on the environment. I’d hope that a lot more people might, for instance, look at the need to travel, to go to meetings and such like. Zoom has transformed a lot of that.

“But in terms of whether we can recalibrate the economy and introduce something like basic income, you’d like to think so but once things reopen there will be a scurry to repair balance sheets.”

The balance sheet requiring the greatest repair will be the national one. Some estimates put the cost accruing to the state at upwards of €30bn if the crisis last throughout the Summer.

“There will be a huge public debt legacy,” Mr Power says. “And the question is what will be done with that. There are strong possibilities that taxes will be increased in the coming years and obviously massive pressure to curb public spending and get finances back into shape.

“At the same time there will also be pressure to continue with the level of spending in the health service. If one lesson should be learned from this it is that a depleted health service is not a good idea and there must be targeted spending there.”

Between it all, he doesn’t see much room for introducing what some might consider radical schemes such as basic income.

“The notion of introducing a universal basic income sounds nice but I simply don’t believe that the environment to facilitate it will be there. It would be lovely in theory but very different in practice.”

The hard economics do make it appear that any kind of a structural change in society will be difficult. However, the old adage about not wasting a crisis comes to mind. After the economic collapse in 2008, there were voices saying that things would have to do done differently in future.

To a large extent they weren’t, and some would argue that the ultimate outcome was the recent general election which appeared to soundly reject politics as usual.

Will things be different this time around?

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