Review of the RSA report on Universal Basic Income

rsareportAnthony Painter and Chris Thoung, Creative Citizen, Creative State – The principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income. Report published by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), December 2015.

This report from the RSA is a most welcome addition to the recent flurry of publications and media interest in Citizen’s Income. It outlines a context – technological change – resulting in

underemployment, unemployment or the need to transition careers with some frequency for many. A Basic Income could provide a foundation to smooth working-life transition; (p. 5)

and an ageing population, requiring more people to spend time on caring for others.

The report notes the growing Citizen’s Income movement; studies a variety of other reform proposals (and particularly a Participation Income and an enhanced contributory system); and argues that polling data that shows that the British public regards ‘making work pay’ as far more important than tackling poverty and inequality provides a powerful argument for Citizen’s Income:

It is Basic Income and Basic Income alone that sends out absolutely clear yet non-coercive signals about the incentive to work. … Basic Income is a foundation for contribution. It incentivizes work but supports other forms of contribution too. In this regard, it is the system of income support that best rewards contribution – albeit contribution defined beyond narrow cash terms. (p. 14-15)

The report describes the UK’s current benefits system, notes that the sanctions regime will increasingly attack the self-employed and the employed once Universal Credit is rolled out, shows how Citizen’s Income would offer the ‘power to create’, and then sets four tests for the idea to pass:

  • Does the system accord with a widespread set of moral precepts?
  • Is it broadly fiscally achievable within the parameters of existing taxation and expenditure?
  • Is it distributionally just when compared to the current system?
  • Will greater individual (and civic) freedom and creativity be realized? (p. 18)

The particular scheme that the RSA evaluates in relation to the second and third criteria is based on the scheme published by the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT) in 2012 but with a few minor variations – you can download the CIT proposal here.

A non-binding contract to encourage contributions to society will run alongside receipt of Citizen’s Income. The fact that it is non-binding, and the recipient’s failure to adhere to an agreed contract would not compromise their receipt of a Citizen’s Income, retains the scheme’s reciprocity – important for its ability to pass the first test – and retains it as one characterized by an initial act of generosity on the part of the state, rather than as one that expects a claimant to prove a contribution before the state reciprocates. There is, though, a danger with such a contract. It would be easy for a future government to make receipt of a Citizen’s Income dependent on adherence to a contract’s conditions, thus turning the Citizen’s Income into a Participation Income, so that it would no longer be a Citizen’s Income and would be loaded with administrative complexity and bureaucratic intrusion in people’s lives – precisely what is not required.

In relation to the levels of Citizen’s Income, the RSA scheme attempts to reduce the losses that poorer families with children might suffer at the point of implementation (which has been recognized as a problem in relation to the Citizen’s Income Trust 2012/13 scheme) by allocating a higher level of Citizen’s Income to the first child in a family, and possibly lower levels to the third and subsequent children. This compromises the definition of a Citizen’s Income, because that requires that every individual of the same age should receive a Citizen’s Income of the same amount: but this is a compromise in theory, and not a new compromise in practice, and so should not overly concern us. This is because in any Citizen’s Income scheme the children’s Citizen’s Income are paid to the main carer: so although in theory every working age adult (or adult over 25 years old, as in the RSA and CIT 2012/13 schemes) receives the same amount, in practice the main carer of children receives their own adult Citizen’s Income and the Citizen’s Incomes of their children. Because allocating different amounts to different children in a family will adjust a total amount paid to an adult that is already variable in relation to the number of the children in the family, no new compromise has in practice been generated. We might hope that if such a Citizen’s Income scheme were to be implemented, then eventually it might prove possible to reduce the compromise by bringing the Citizen’s Income levels allocated to different children nearer to or identical with equality: but as a transitional measure with some useful effects, the RSA’s approach has much to commend it.

A compromise that has nothing to commend it, though, relates to lone parents:

One group that could lose out in the transition to Basic Income in the RSA model are low income, lone parents with children over the age of five. … there may be scope for a transitionary measure whereby lone parents could continue to claim a Child Benefit top-up … introducing an element of household calculation. (p.31)

A lone parent addition would not satisfy the ‘unconditional’ requirement of a Citizen’s Income, and would result in precisely the kind of bureaucratic intrusion into people’s personal relationships that a Citizen’s Income is trying to get away from. If it is felt that lone parents need an additional payment, then an additional and separately administered payment should be made, so that the Citizen’s Income itself is not compromised. We are used to social policies that we can tinker with without destroying them. A Citizen’s Income is different. If we tinker with it, then we destroy it. This lesson has thankfully been learnt in relation to Child Benefit. In 2010 we were told that it would be means-tested. It has not been. Instead, an additional tax charge is imposed on high earning individuals living in households receiving Child Benefit. This is not sensible, because it has resulted in domestic disharmony and in the withdrawal of Child Benefit claims: but at least it does not destroy Child Benefit as a universal benefit. A similar approach could be employed in relation to lone parents in the context of a Citizen’s Income. The Citizen’s Income must never change; but an additional benefit could be established with its own conditionalities and administration.

When the report discusses some alternative Citizen’s Income schemes – such as scheme B in the recent Institute of Social and Economic Research paper, its use of the word ‘modified’ might be somewhat confusing. Scheme B is not a ‘modified’ Citizen’s Income, or a ‘modified’ Citizen’s Income scheme. The Citizen’s Income is a genuine Citizen’s Income. It is simply that scheme B retains more means-tested benefits than some other schemes – it still takes a lot of households off means-tested benefits, or reduces their claims to such low levels that they are likely to come off them. We ought to avoid the use of the word ‘modified’. Either a proposal is for a Citizen’s Income, or it is not; and if it is, then the whole scheme, including changes to means-tested benefits, tax allowances, etc., is a Citizen’s Income scheme. Some schemes, such as scheme B, would be easier to implement than others, such as the RSA scheme. In many ways, the RSA scheme would be preferable to scheme B. So perhaps we ought to regard scheme B as a useful first step, and the RSA scheme as a useful second step.

The RSA report is a long, detailed, well researched, and most useful document, and no short review can do it justice. The minor caveats that I have listed above are precisely that: minor caveats, and areas for continuing research and debate. The RSA is to be highly congratulated on the research project that has led to the report, and on the report itself. There could be no better place to start the next phase of the Citizen’s Income debate than this report.

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