Basic income: from radical idea to a pilot in Scotland?
Last week, I joined a Scottish delegation at the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) Congress, an annual gathering of people from around the world interested in basic income. A basic income is the concept of regular, unconditional payments made to all citizens, employed and unemployed, whether they are seeking work or not. This was the 18 thBIEN congress and, with basic income enjoying an upsurge in interest from around the world and across the policy spectrum, over 300 people took part in four days of plenaries, workshops, and socials in the city of Tampere, Finland.
There is significant interest in Scotland currently due to four local authorities exploring the feasibility of basic income pilot. The Basic Income steering group is a cross-council initiative by Fife, North Ayrshire, and Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils, and supported by NHS Health Scotland and the Improvement Service. The idea of a pilot was recommended in the report of the Fairer Fife Commission, chaired by Carnegie UK Trust CEO Martyn Evans. The four councils have a shared interest in exploring basic income as a policy which could provide a safety net to all citizens, alleviating poverty and inequality while replacing a complex social security apparatus which is perceived by many to be failing.
However, recognising that basic income is a radical departure from the existing social security norms, the councils are working together to scope out the feasibility of a coordinated Scottish pilot across their localities. A carefully designed pilot would go a long way towards appreciating the potential positive and negatives effects of basic income on individuals, communities, social services and the labour market. It would help decision makers in Scotland to understand what infrastructure would be required to deliver a basic income in practice.
It would also mark something of a world first. While a range of countries have piloted aspects of basic income, there have not really been any full or ‘pure’ basic income pilots in a developed country with an advanced welfare state like Scotland has. The Steering Group joined the conference to learn from the experience of other jurisdictions in testing concepts of basic income, and particularly from the challenges they may have experienced. This marks the outset of a two-year feasibility study, funded by the Scottish Government, which will outline how and whether a feasible, meaningful and ethical Basic Income study can be undertaken in Scotland.
An international learning report will be produced by the Steering Group for the Carnegie UK Trust in the autumn, to reflect on what we heard at the conference, and what it means for a future Scottish pilot. In, the meantime, in no particular order, here are some of the ideas and challenges levelled by delegates which stood out for me:
Concept versus reality
Basic income as a concept rarely survives completely intact when it comes into contact with the reality of people’s diverse needs. The concept of Basic Income is that all citizens should receive the same amount, but it can be difficult to reconcile the wish to level the playing field between rich and poor with a universal payment — particularly if this payment, because of its very universality, has to be set at a relatively low level to be affordable. For particular groups with labour market disadvantage, such as people with disabilities, it is widely understood that parallel, means-tested social security arrangements will also continue to be needed. Housing costs are also now commonly excluded from many campaigners’ basic income calculations, and these too would have to be means tested.
No more ‘tinkering around the edges’?
There is a strong and shared sense across many developed countries that existing social security systems are failing — even though many countries have very different systems. This made me think about what we are doing so wrong in this policy area, and also wonder what we may be actually doing well, and do we recognise this enough? Can we realise improvements to make the social security system treat claimants better, or is basic income a more promising solution, if ‘tinkering around the edges’ no longer offers the prospect of real improvement?
Motivation to work
One of the most common objections to the idea of basic income is that it would reduce the motivation to work. Working to ‘pay our own way’ in the world is deeply entrenched in the culture of many developed countries, with paid work according a sense of purpose, status and identity. A fascinating meta-study of completed basic income pilots refutes the idea that people receiving a basic income are likely to stop working. But differing and strongly held opinions on whether individuals are obliged to ‘pay our own way’ may prove hard to overcome.
The value of work
Delegates wondered if basic income would support more people to enter paid work — for example, by easing labour market transitions- or if it would engender a more inclusive understanding of how individuals contribute to society. Would basic income change the cultural association between paid labour and human worth; and in doing so, reduce the marginalisation of those e.g. parents and carers who are unable to take on paid work because of their caring responsibilities? Would it encourage more people to undertake more unpaid work, such as volunteering and caring, and in doing so, potentially enrich civil society and communities?
Searching for different outcomes
What vision of society, what new social contract, are advocates of basic income searching for? In reality, where politics (and life) requires the constant weighing up of competing priorities, those jurisdictions who have attempted to pilot basic income have had a range of different outcomes and main beneficiaries in mind — from alleviating destitution, to making the social security system more effective at getting people back into work; to driving greater entrepreneurship through the provision of a safety net.
Returning to Scotland
In Scotland, a key red line for all four councils is that basic income should not exacerbate existing inequalities. The Basic Income feasibility study will scope out a variety of potential outcomes and how these can be tested — but will only opt to move to a pilot if all those involved believe it can help contribute to a fairer Scotland.
Participation of representatives from the Basic Income Steering Group in BIEN World Congress 2018 was funded by the Carnegie UK Trust.
Join in the debate on Twitter — #basicincome or visit www.basicincome.scot to find out more.
 Presentation by Richard Gilbert, Loyola Marymount University, to BIEN 18 thWorld Congress: ‘Would Basic Income reduce the motivation to work? A review of empirical data from a half century of trial programs.’
Originally published at https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk on August 31, 2018.