Why is a Basic Income universal?

Why is a Basic Income universal?

The second instalment of our series of blogs covering Basic Income FAQs and core principles, Basic Income Network Scotland trustee, Gordon Dickson, answers questions about why a Basic Income is paid to everyone. You can read the first one, about Basic Income and cash payments here, with more to come on other topics over the next few weeks. 

“A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.”

Basic Income Earth Network

A key characteristic of Basic Income is its universality, indeed it is commonly referred to as Universal Basic Income (UBI). It is universal in the sense that it is paid to all and without condition (see blog on conditionality for more).

What does universality mean?

A ‘Universal’ Basic Income means paying every eligible individual an income, it is all-inclusive in its application and comprehensive in its coverage.

“Citizens basic income (BI) seeks to reduce poverty and increase people’s control over their lives – improving their quality of life and wellbeing and strengthening socio-economic inclusion and justice.”

Common Weal

For me this characteristic of basic income is an expression of a renewed expression of the social contract between every citizen with each other and the state. It strengthens our sense of all-inclusiveness and of what a fair, equal and open society aspires to be.

For the UK, we already have a longstanding, strongly held belief in universality as an expression of our social contract. Since the establishment of the welfare state, universality has been at its heart, today we have universal payments such as the state pension and child benefits. Underpinning many of the ‘social services’ of the state is this same value of comprehensiveness and inclusivity, whether it is all levels of education and free access to health care.

I also see this value of ‘universality’ in the freedoms society seeks to protect for the individual citizen, such as the right to privacy and equality under the law. These ‘universal’ rights are applied to all without prejudice (well, in theory at least – but more of that later).

Here in Scotland we can also think of the universality at the heart of government programmes like ‘baby boxes’ sent to all parents of new-born children, free prescriptions for everyone or the exemption from paying tuition fees for all Scottish (& EU) students. There is also a strong sense of universality in the ‘right to roam’ access rights to the natural wonders of Scotland, the sense of ‘freedom come all ye,’ so important for a small nation like ours.

What does universality do for society?

Neither a comprehensive benefit payment programme or even an all-inclusive, free to access system of services can eradicate inequality completely. This is true also of universal basic income, despite this being used as a criticism of it, without ever being mentioned in relation to the other means to eradicate poverty.

What universality can do is create social inclusion in part because everyone receives the payment, and whilst it does not end inequality it can end poverty, especially for children. This for me is crucial in understanding basic income as a whole and the characteristic of universality in particular, because it sets to provide everyone with the basic means to provide for themselves, guaranteeing a minimum standard, just as the minimum and living wage rates do. Importantly it does not end inequality, in the same way access to universal education and health services does not end inequality there either.

Universality and inequality

For many sceptical about a universal basic income, the lack of redistribution is a key concern. Of course, something which is universal (paid to all) cannot deliver more to where it’s needed, as I have said this argument is never used against other universal payments or services. A universal basic income cannot therefore replace the economic, social and legislative actions a government needs to take to address inequality, whether it is through the whole range of tax-raising powers (not just those of personal income taxation), or guaranteeing universal services or additional benefits and services required by those with additional needs.

I would argue that by ending immediate poverty and establishing a clear, unambiguous sense of social contract with every individual as a recipient of the payment, universal basic income highlights the remaining inequality in society.

By doing so, it focuses our collective attention on such social exclusions, whether it is based on gender, race, class, disability or identity, and demands that we correct it.

A universal basic income paid to all, without prejudice, gives our society the means to work together to eradicate those inequalities rather than shift blame or economic responsibility around as a way of not confronting the issue.

As the activist think-tank Common Weal says ‘All of us first’

Gordon Dickson, Basic Income Network Scotland trustee

Image credit: Photo by Rahul Pandit from Pexels

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