Universal Basic Income (UBI) is once again in the news as a promising program in the upcoming general election in India after finding its place in India’s 2016-17 economic survey. Proponents say UBI is economically prudent and could make a significant dent on poverty in the country. UBI bypasses India’s weak system of existing welfare schemes which are riddled with misallocation, leakages, and exclusion of the poor. It also makes sense from the perspective of an individual, who is assumed to be economically rational and thus can spend in accordance to his priorities and choices.
Having said there is insufficient empirical evidence to demonstrate how UBI could accomplish social justice and poverty reduction, especially in a country like India which is still held down by a regressive social structure in the form of a caste system. The caste system leads to a lack of mobility, producing a semi-feudal system of land ownership. Land is held by a small fraction of the population with the rest being landless or having little property, especially in rural areas. The fact that most of the poor are also concentrated in India’s rural areas makes the case that UBI could be successful at alleviating poverty.
Moreover, the proposition that UBI will reduce poverty assumes that the market works competitively and allocates resources efficiently. However, markets do fail in providing an efficient and just outcome in the presence of informational asymmetry, externalities, and monopolies. This is especially true in the case of India where the market is disproportionately in the hands of a few big players who can influence it to their advantage. For instance, giving out cash as opposed to goods and services in kind may not help in remote places if the corresponding supply of essential goods are not there (this role is otherwise performed by the public distribution system in India which may be dismantled to make fiscal space for UBI). A monopoly supplier may hike the prices to neutralise the extra income. To the extent the purchasing power of cash transfers in the form of UBI is curtailed by market fluctuations, the efficacy of basic income to alleviate poverty could be limited.
UBI even in the presence of efficient market can capture only poverty in terms of economic deprivation, whereas factors such as poor health, lack of education, discrimination and lack of entitlements cannot be addressed by the market but are crucial from the perspective of eradicating poverty.
John Rawls in his seminal work propounding the concept of distributive justice is guided by the ‘difference principle,’ which stresses that goods and services should be arranged in a manner that serves to benefit the least advantaged and foster growth towards equality of opportunity. To the extent that everyone will receive the same amount of cash transfer irrespective of his or her requirement, the UBI fails to ensure distributional justice, in accordance with the ‘difference principle’. In this case, justice would require maximizing assistance to those who need it most, which at present our welfare schemes (despite its weaknesses) strives to achieve. UBI at best can only work in conjunction with the existing policies. In order to fully eradicate poverty, the welfare state should work towards increasing its capacity to deliver and regulate rather than leaving it to the market.
Currently pursuing Master’s in public administration (MPA), LKY school, National University of Singapore. Graduated in Economics from Delhi University and Post Graduated in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. 5year experience of teaching in various colleges of Delhi University and working with the government of India under various capacities. He has worked as a researcher in the field of Labour economics and evaluated major labour market policies in India such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Program. He has also part of capacity development programs organised by IMF in the areas of Macro-Economics, Fiscal and monetary policies, and Financial Programming and policies.
Ackerman. B, et al (2006), ‘Redesigning distribution: basic income and stakeholder grants as cornerstones of an egalitarian capitalism’, The Real Utopias Project, Vol. V. London.
Khera. R (2016) ‘A Phased Approach Will Make a Basic Income Affordable for India’, The Wire.
Michel. H (2008), ‘Global Basic Income and its Contribution to Human Development and Fair Terms of Global Economic Co-Operation: A Political-Economic Outlook’, A Paper for the Congress of the Basic Income Earth Network, University College, Dublin, Ireland.
Pettit. P (2007), ‘Basic Income and the Republican Legacy’, Basic income studies, International Journal of Basic Income Research Vol. 2.
Porter. E (2016), ‘A Universal Basic Income Is a Poor Tool to Fight Poverty’, New York Times.
Standing. G (2002), ‘Beyond the New Paternalism: Basic Security as Equality’, London.
Standing. G (2015), ‘India’s experiment in basic income grants’, Global Dialogues, Vol. 5.
Taylor. T (2014), ‘Economics and Morality’, Finance & development, a quarterly publication of the international monetary fund, Volume 51.
Todaro, Smith (2015), ‘Introducing Economic Development: A Global Perspective’ Economic Development, 12th edition, chapter 1, Pg 20.
Tobin. J, et al (1967), ‘Is a negative income tax practical’? The Yale Law Journal.
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Philip Alston. Picture credit to: BBC News
Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was in the UK last November 2018, presenting his findings on this press conference. It seems that the UK, the 5th world economy in terms of GDP, drags on the 55th position as far as inequality is concerned, in a list of 160 countries (Gini coefficient measurements from the year 2000 onward, mostly). He refers that, although many think tanks, civic organizations and even parliamentary groups speak of poverty as a crucial challenge in the UK, government ministers consider that “things are going well”, in an obvious attitude of denial.
Alton’s visit to the UK has spurred the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee to conduct an inquiry on UK’s welfare system, along with rising evidence of debt, hunger and homelessness across the country. In fact, a recent (June 2018), deep study on British welfare had already demonstrated that the attribution of conditional benefits has more drawbacks than positive outcomes, which turns the present system counterproductive. So, it seems that poverty, social stigma and arbitrary sanctions are not only the product of some filmmaker’s imagination (e.g.: I, Daniel Blake), but real, verifiable facts.
Among the cited evidence can be found the contribution of the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT). Given the grim scenario of UK’s poorest or most financially insecure social layers – wages below the poverty line, high unemployment, high insecurity within the job market, increasing conditional welfare – the CIT, headed by Malcolm Torry, recommends that UK’s welfare system should be covered with a new level of unconditional income security. Therefore, it has recommended to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee the adoption of basic income, in the following terms:
Research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex has shown that such a new layer of unconditional incomes would be entirely feasible. By reducing to zero the Income Tax Personal Allowance and the National Insurance Contributions Primary Earnings Threshold, levelling out National Insurance Contributions across the earnings range, and raising Income Tax rates by just three percentage points, it would be possible to pay an unconditional income of £63 per week to every working age adult, with different amounts for different age groups. No additional public expenditure would be required; poverty and inequality would be substantially reduced; almost no losses would be imposed on low income households at the point of implementation, and only manageable losses on any household; a significant number of households would be taken off means-tested benefits; and a much larger number would be brought within striking distance of coming off them. For every household that came off means-tested benefits, employment incentives would rise substantially. Most importantly: every household in the country would experience a substantial increase in its financial security.
It is worth noting that the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee had already run a formal Oral Evidence Hearing about basic income, on January 12th 2017. At this session were presenting evidence and informed opinions for basic income Louise Haagh (University of York and Basic Income Earth Network), Annie Miller (Citizen’s Income Trust) and Becca Kirkpatrick (UNISON West Midlands Community Branch). On the official summary of that formal hearing, the Committee judged the possibility of introducing a basic income type of policy in the UK as risking “being a distraction from workable welfare reform”, urging “the incoming government not to spend any energy on it”.
Overall, social degradation is happening in the UK, no matter how much governmental officials try to deny it. And that is in the midst of great transformations in the British welfare system, which may raise concerns about what “workable welfare reforms” the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee had in mind in early 2017. Accepting evidence from the CIT, naturally supporting a thought-through basic income scheme for the UK, it remains unclear whether the appeal for the government to avoid basic income is to be given any credence.
More information at:
Hannah Trippier, “United Kingdom: Study suggests that welfare conditionality does more harm than good”, Basic Income News, July 31st 2018
Genevieve Shanahan, “UK: Parliament releases summary of Oral Evidence Hearing on UBI”, Basic Income News, May 9th 2017
André Coelho, “VIDEO: UK’s Work and Pensions Committee oral evidence on basic income (summary of content)”, Basic Income News, February 18th 2017
Michael Buchanan, “Poverty causing ‘misery’ in the UK, and ministers are in denial, says UN official”, BBC News, November 16th 2018
A new working paper released by Growthpolicy, which disseminates research by Harvard scholars on the topics of economic growth, employment, and inequality, argues that a universal basic income is superior to current low wage subsidies in several ways. The author, Associate Professor of Economics at Harvard, Dr. Maximilian Kasy contends that these subsidies, specifically the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in the United States, comparatively carries several economic, moral, and political disadvantages.
The EITC is a subsidy to low income working families and increases with income to specific thresholds, depending on household size. The credit has been found to incentivize work, reduce welfare dependency, improve child health and educational outcomes, and lifts roughly 6.5 million people above the official poverty line. Kasy argues that a basic income could produce similar outcomes while eliminating several important drawbacks. First, because the demand for labor is finite, especially in times of recession, incentivizing some workers to work more, which ultimately creates fewer jobs overall. In other words, if a service sector employee works overtime hours in order to maximize the EITC credit, her employer will not need to hire an additional employee to cover those hours. Further, multiple researchers have found that subsidizing low wage work via the EITC plus cuts to traditional welfare, in the 1990s, decreased pressure on employers to offer a living wage and ultimately contributed to the declining value of the minimum wage. In essence, Kasy argues, the EITC is a subsidy to employers. Conversely, a UBI would increase the bargaining power of workers and wages would thusly rise.
Dr. Kasey also asserts that a basic income would reduce the coercive power that employers, abusive partners, and a paternalistic welfare system hold over economically marginalized populations. Low wage workers, survivors of domestic violence, and mothers at the mercy of intrusive welfare policy would have an increased ability to walk away from exploitative situations. Furthermore, a basic income would fairly compensate child and elder care work, which is largely done by women and goes unrewarded in our current wage-based system.
Finally, as many have argued, Dr. Kasey finds that a universal basic income carries potentially greater political stability than means-tested benefits. For example, while the passage of Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s was met with cries of “Socialism!,”, these were soon widely popular across the political spectrum and are rarely considered as potential areas for federal budget cuts.
More information at:
Maximilian Kasy, “Why a Universal Basic Income Is Better Than Subsidies of Low-Wage Work”, Working paper, August 5th, 2018
Written by: Leah Hamilton, MSW, PhD
Democrats and Republicans don’t see eye to eye very often, but they can safely agree on one point: welfare doesn’t work. Liberals are concerned that an ever-shrinking social safety net reaches fewer and fewer families in need. Republicans worry that welfare benefits create dependence. They are both right.
The primary cash assistance program in the United States, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, served 68% of low-income families in 1996. Today, only 23% of poor families receive assistance. This change has been largely brought about by the imposition of five-year lifetime limits (states are allowed to set lower limits) and stricter eligibility criteria. Welfare caseload reductions have been solidly linked to the rise of deep poverty in America, family strain and increased foster care placements. 1.46 million US households (including 2.8 million children) now live on less than $2 per person, per day (the World Bank’s measurement of extreme poverty).
Meanwhile, welfare eligibility rules designed to encourage independence have achieved the opposite effect. For example, though many states impose strict work requirements, states which loosen these rules actually see recipients move to higher wage, higher benefit work, presumably because they have the breathing room to search for a good job rather than take the first one that comes along. Similarly, in states with strict limitations on recipient assets, poor families are less likely to own a car, making it nearly impossible to maintain employment in areas without public transportation. Even worse, some researchers are discovering a “cliff effect” in which welfare recipients immediately lose all benefits (including child care assistance) after a small increase in income. As a result, many parents turn down promotional opportunities because they would be ultimately worse off financially. Any parent would make the same decision if it meant the ability to feed their children and afford quality childcare.
We must redesign this entire system. In the most prosperous nation in the world, it is ludicrous that children are growing up in the kind of deprivation we normally associate with developing countries. Simultaneously, we must ensure that no one is discouraged from growing their income or assets. One potential solution is a universal basic income, which would provide an annual benefit to every citizen. However, this idea comes with a hefty price tag and would either increase our national deficit or increase the marginal tax rate, both of which might be political non-starters. The simpler solution is a Negative Income Tax (NIT) which is potentially cheaper than our current poverty alleviation efforts. An NIT is a refundable tax credit which brings every household to the federal poverty level. The most effective way to do this is to decrease the credit slowly (for example, a $0.50 reduction for each $1.00 increase in earned income) so that there is never a penalty for hard work.
Researchers at the University of Michigan calculated what this might look like in practice. If a family had no income, their tax credit would be 100% of the poverty line ($20,780 for a family of three). If the family’s earned income increased to half the poverty line ($10,390), their tax credit would decrease to $15,585. The credit would phase out completely once the family’s income reached twice the poverty level ($41,560). This plan would cost roughly $219 billion per year and could be almost completely paid for by replacing most or all of our current poverty programs.
With this one simple policy, we can achieve many goals of both the left and right. Poverty would be eliminated overnight. Work disincentives would be removed. American bureaucracy would be significantly reduced. Families would be free to make financial decisions without government intrusion. And in the long run, we would save money. Childhood poverty alone costs the US $1.03 trillion (yes, trillion) per year. In the 21st century, eradicating poverty isn’t complicated. We’re just going about it in the worst possible way.
About the author:
Leah Hamilton, MSW, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Appalachian State University. She received a BSW from Metropolitan State University of Denver, an MSW from the University of Denver and a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Arkansas. She served as a Foster Care Case Worker and trainer for five years in Denver, Colorado. Dr. Hamilton’s research interests include poverty, economic justice, and social policy.
Map of Europe. Credit to: Flickr
The European Social Survey (ESS) has published its 2016 Round 8 results, which include, for the first time in its history, a polling question asking participants to express their attitude to the hypothetical introduction of a basic income scheme in society.
The 34,604 participants across 18 European countries were asked whether, overall, they would be ‘strongly against’, ‘against’, ‘in favour’ or ‘strongly in favour’ of a scheme – labelled by the ESS as a ‘basic income scheme’ – that operates under the following conditions:
- The government pays everyone a monthly income to cover essential living costs;
- It replaces many other social benefits;
- The purpose is to guarantee everyone a minimum standard of living;
- Everyone receives the same amount regardless of whether or not they are working;
- People also keep the money they earn from work or other sources;
- This scheme is paid for by taxes.
There was also an option to leave no response to the question. The answer rate across the countries mostly fell between 90% and 98%, though the two anomalies were Poland, with an 85.3% rate, and the Russian Federation, with an 80.9% rate. Given it would be conjecture to determine reasons for this variation (since any information of this type wasn’t included in the survey), the more in depth analysis focused on those who did express opinion.
Of this group, the Russian Federation had the highest percentage ‘in favour’ or ‘strongly in favour’ of the ‘basic income scheme’, at a combined 73.2%, whilst participants in Norway were the least in favour, with only 33.7% answering in the positive. Taking the Esping-Anderson definition used throughout the ESS analysis of country groupings (based on Welfare State Regimes in 1990), it was evident that there was a slight, but evident, correlation between the category the country falls within and the general positivity expressed in the survey. The ‘Eastern Europe’ countries, for example, tended to be generally more in favour of the scheme, with, in addition to Russia, 65% of those in Slovenia, 58.5% of those in Poland, 52.2% of those in the Czech Republic, and 46.7% of those in Estonia either ‘in favour’ or ‘strongly in favour’ of the scheme (representing the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 8th and 12th countries, respectively, most in favour of the idea). Conversely, the countries falling within the ‘Social Democratic’ grouping tended to be generally less in favour of the scheme, with 66.3% of those in Norway, 62.4% of those in Sweden, 54.0% of those in Iceland, 50.2% of those in Netherlands and 44.3% of those in Finland either ‘against’ or ‘strongly against’ the scheme (representing the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 9th and 12th countries, respectively, least in favour of the idea). The countries within ‘Christian Democratic’ grouping – Germany, France, Austria and Belgium – plus the UK and Ireland, showed a more even split, generally in favour of or generally against, whilst Israel and Switzerland were treated as their own categories, with the former 65% either ‘in favour’ or ‘strongly in favour’ of the idea, and the latter, at the other end of the scale, 65.3% either ‘against’ or ‘strongly against’ the idea.
In terms of demographic breakdown, age seemed to be a driver of support, with all country groupings showing the highest level of support within the 15-34 age group, from which a common curtailing trend prevailed as the age bracket increased. The source of participant’s income also seemed to determine level of support in a similar cross grouping trend, with all country categories showing the highest level of support when income was derived from ‘unemployment benefits’ or ‘other social benefits’, and conversely, all showing the lowest level of support when income was accrued through ‘self-employment’, ‘pension’, and to a lesser extent, through general ‘wages or salaries’. Though the level of actual income, in terms of income percentile category within the country groupings, offered no indication as to whether a participant would be generally for or against the idea, there was a clear trend that, if the participant felt that they were finding it ‘very difficult’ or ‘difficult’ to cope with their level of income, they were far more likely to be pro the idea of the basic income scheme. Somewhat pertaining to real income not being an indicator, ‘social class’ (defined by ‘skilled workers’, ‘unskilled workers’, ‘small business owners’, ‘lower-grade service class’ and ‘higher-grade service class’) showed no variation in preference other than the country groupings’ reasonably strong overall proclivity. ‘Gender’ and ‘educational level’ both showed scattered and inconclusive trending.
Though the results of the survey do give some indication (and from a large data source) of people’s openness to ‘basic income’ across much and varying parts of Europe, the wording of the question requires that caution is taken when interpreting the data. Whilst the ESS description of a ‘basic income scheme’ does include all the elements BIEN determine as being necessary when talking about the concept (universality, unconditionality, with payments made periodically, in cash and to the individual), it also states, additionally, that it would would be paid for ‘by taxes’ and that it would replace ‘many other social benefits’. It was, therefore, the opinion of a particular implementation of universal basic income that was sought after (especially where the latter condition’s inclusion was concerned), where preconceived notions of the scheme’s potential positives or negatives are already affirmed. That is, it implies that there is no option for basic income to be included in addition to, and thus leading to an expansion of, the current social security system, but only as part of one that is fixed or diminishing in size. Other recent surveys, such as the IPSOS Mori in the UK, and the Politico/Morning Consult in the US, used wording only focusing on the basic income concept rather than its implementation.
More information at:
‘ESS8 – 2016 Data Download’, European Social Survey.org, October 31st 2017
Stuart Smedley, ‘Half of UK adults would support universal basic income in principle’, Ipsos.com, September 8th 2017
Patrick Hoare, ‘US: New POLITICO/Morning Consult poll finds that 43% of Americans are in favour of a UBI’, Basic Income News, October 5th 2017