Universal Basic Income (UBI) has come to the forefront of mainstream political and economic debate over the last year as the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the economic precarity faced by so many in society.
A UBI would pay every individual enough money to live on with no strings attached, regardless of their income or circumstances. It would not be means-tested or taxed and would be paid directly into each person’s bank account every month. At the height of the pandemic last year Basic Income Northern Ireland proposed a ‘Coronavirus Recovery UBI’ of £800 a month for every adult and £400 for children for 2 months. It has also published plans for a permanent UBI for Northern Ireland, and proposals to test the idea with UBI amounts ranging from £200-£900 a month.
The idea has received support at council, Assembly and Westminster, from politicians in Alliance, the DUP, the Greens, People Before Profit, SDLP, Sinn Fein and the UUP; however, only a few of these parties actually have UBI as party policy. More than half of Northern Ireland’s local authorities have backed a UBI in principle, with three councils (Newry, Mourne and Down, Derry & Strabane and Belfast) explicitly backing a trial of the idea in their districts. A number of these councils have now come together to form a ground-breaking new steering group to plan and deliver these trials, and investigate how the policy could be rolled out (and funded) nationally. This will contribute to work already underway in Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland to advance UBI trials.
A UBI can play a vital role in helping us emerge from lockdown, by stimulating consumer demand to get businesses back on their feet, and providing a small token of recompense for the huge loss and suffering people have endured over the last year. But it is much more than that – Covid and the financial support schemes put in place to mitigate its impact have exposed the failings of our present neoliberal system. Whilst many of us in the middle class were lucky enough to be able to work from home or have our salaries protected through furlough, there was little to no additional support for workers on the frontline in our hospitals, supermarkets, transportation and many other essential sectors. And those on zero-hour contracts, in the gig economy or recently self-employed were often left with only the fundamentally flawed and insufficient Universal Credit system as a means of support. And if you were a student during the pandemic, you didn’t even qualify for that. Economic precarity was deeply embedded in our system before the pandemic, and the combined challenges of the Covid recovery, Brexit and automation will continue to exacerbate this unless we take a different route, one that puts economic security, not precarity, at the heart of our society.
A UBI was needed before the pandemic. Our NHS is at breaking point, over 100,000 deaths have been linked to austerity since 2010 and the top 1% of society owns almost a quarter of our wealth. In Northern Ireland, 1 in 4 children are born into poverty, we have some of the highest deprivation levels of any region of the UK, the highest rates of poor mental health and paramilitary crime has been on a steep increase for the first time in many years.
There is no better time than now to change direction and help usher in a new social and economic contract for Northern Ireland. A UBI would end material poverty overnight, and where it’s been tested it has shown transformational potential including: improving mental health and wellbeing, decreasing hospitalisation rates, improving educational outcomes and reducing crime. A permanent UBI could act as venture capital for ordinary people, increasing economic activity by eliminating poverty traps, encouraging entrepreneurial activity and stimulating spending. It could reinvigorate civic society by facilitating more volunteering, remunerating carers, freeing up time for political participation and boosting social capital and social trust. My own research considers the impact UBI could have in healing divisions and offering a ‘peace dividend’ for everyone living in a post-conflict society. This includes how it could reduce incentives to join paramilitary gangs, provide compensation for victims of the Troubles and help to tackle the ongoing costs of division.
A UBI would represent the greatest devolution of power and freedom to individuals since the advent of democracy. It would be the greatest investment in people since the post-war welfare state, which is one of the reasons many are calling UBI ‘our generation’s NHS’. For those on the right who want a free market and a simplified state that doesn’t interfere in people’s lives, UBI levels the economic playing field and gives everyone a fair chance to thrive. For those on the left, it would eradicate poverty, tackle inequality and plug the gaps in the welfare state. And for those of us who don’t want to move left or right but forward, a UBI has the ability to unlock human potential and deliver an unprecedented opportunity for progress on the other side of the pandemic.
If you would like to find out more about the movement for UBI in Northern Ireland, Basic Income Northern Ireland is hosting an event as part of the 2021 Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics, where we will discuss our Peace Dividend proposal and hear from a range of informative speakers, including award winning journalist Mary O’Hara and leading UBI advocate Prof Guy Standing. You can register for this virtual event here.
Basic Income Northern Ireland (BINI) is an advocacy group of volunteers campaigning for the introduction of a basic income in Northern Ireland. We do this primarily through regular meetings, public events, and are currently developing proposals for a costed basic income for Northern Ireland. We meet regularly and anyone is welcome to join. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter to find out more.
About the author
Patrick Brown is a final year PhD student at Queen’s and a founding member of Basic Income Northern Ireland (BINI) and UBI Lab Northern Ireland. He is the lead author of proposals for a Recovery UBI in Northern Ireland and UBI as a ‘Peace Dividend.’ His research looks at the relationship between basic income and conflict transformation, and whether a UBI would assist with peacebuilding in a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland. He is also an Alliance Party Councillor. You can follow him on Twitter.
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