The case for a universal basic income

The world is covered with goods and services that only decades ago were the stuff of science fiction. Hand-held mobile communication was possible between the Enterprise crew on the cult television show Star Trek, while viewers were calling their friends and relatives on clunky, wall mounted telephones. Now, almost 6.8 billion people worldwide have a mobile phone, about a third of which are smartphones. For a hundred years, authors of page and screen have been fascinated by the prospect of robotics, and as a result automatons are found in manufacturing, aged care, and laboratories the world over.

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the latest dream in transition to reality. Known by many names, the ‘Citizen’s Dividend’, ‘Negative Income Tax’, or ‘Income Guarantee’ is the idea that all citizens of a particular state will receive a stipend towards cost of living. There are no qualifiers or means-tests required; the money is given to everyone universally. This idea is gaining popularity and has been trialled at successive levels with positive results.

In 2009, a charity in London gave 13 homeless men a basic income of £3,000. The results defied convention. On average, only £800 was spent in the first year and not one dollar was spent on drugs or alcohol. In 2010, 20 villages in India were given a similar opportunity to access a basic income for 18 months. They, too, were found to be both economically and socially empowered as a result of the experiment. This year has seen the announcement of basic income trials in parts of the Netherlands, while campaigners in Switzerland prepare for a referendum on the issue later this year.

Yet it’s the recent news out of Finland that has caught the attention of global commentators. The small Nordic country is currently drafting plans to replace their welfare system with a UBI, which would see every citizen get an allowance of €800 (AU$1125) per month without restriction.

This hasn’t happened overnight. Finland has a perfect storm of factors that have allows the UBI to be considered. A powerful union movement, a strong tradition of social solidarity, rising unemployment, insecure work, and the threat of economic stagnation has brought Finland to a point where it will consider such an ambitious program. Over 70 per cent of workers in Finland belong to a union, and workers currently receive their unemployment payments through their union. Hence the Finnish government’s initial response to cut their way out of crisis was met with powerful resistance, with millions of workers taking part in a general strike in September.

The Finnish government, therefore, may be using the UBI as a means to sideline the Finnish union movement while minimising social resistance and managing tensions within a governing coalition of three parties. But this does not mean that the union movement should oppose the UBI as a matter of principle, in Finland or anywhere else. A growing number of Finnish workers are currently trapped in insecure employment with fluctuating hours and incomes, in industries without a strong union presence. As their insecure employment excludes them from Finland’s current welfare system, they are faced with a precarious existence.

While the UBI obviously makes an explicit claim to be universal, there are implications that impact on particular groups of people differently. For instance, there are gender implications of a UBI, and the UBI has the capacity to offer a degree of economic and social freedom to women.

If a UBI isn’t part of a broader strategy to create a fairer society, however, it can entrench traditional gender roles. If responsibility for caring duties is passed from the state to the citizen through the move to a UBI, arguably it will be women who will become charged with performing these. And while a UBI may offer women choices and freedoms via having their own money and being able to make decisions about how to spend this money, it can end up reinforcing gendered divisions of labour. People (overwhelmingly women) currently performing domestic work at home would at least be offered a wage for their duties, but there is a danger that women will be discouraged from participating in the traditional workforce.

Another problem with the Finnish proposal is that it will leave single parents worse off. €800 per month is less than many currently receive in social security payments. This unnecessary punishment of single parent families could obscure the power within the UBI to liberate us from gender-based inequality.

Having said that, the aforementioned trials in India led to generally positive outcomes for women. Run in conjunction with the Self Employed Women’s Association (a registered trade union), the UBI trial saw women’s socio-economic status improve, greater equity for those with disabilities, and growth stimulated in the village economies.

As world leaders despair at growing inequality, and societies struggle to keep pace with the impacts of globalisation, a UBI makes sense – if they are committed to equality and dignity.


All views expressed are solely that of the authors themselves.

Image: Christopher Andrews / Flickr

Carina Garland

Carina Garland is a feminist writer and communications officer at the NUW.

More by Carina Garland ›

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is a Melbourne based freelance writer and PhD candidate, who is employed by the Young Workers Centre.

More by Shirley Jackson ›

Godfrey Moase

Godfrey Moase is an Executive Director, United Workers Union. He’s previously written for the Guardian, Overland, Jacobin and New Matilda.

More by Godfrey Moase ›

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  1. One argument against welfare in general is that it makes people lazy and unwilling to lookng for work, which has generally been shown to be incorrect. Therefore I’m not sure if mentioning that ‘…there is a danger that women will be discouraged from participating in the traditional workforce.’ is really beneficial to your argument.

    1. Note the tense in which we wrote that sentence. A potential danger of the UBI to enforce patriarchal gender norms by removing the economic necessity of some women to find any work to support their family is a long way from saying that it makes people lazy and unwilling to look for work.

      1. This makes not sense to me. The evils of patriarchal gender norms is not that women are not in work but that women do not have the money, power and fulfilment that may come from working. Forcing women into work through ‘incentives’ (i.e. the threat of poverty e.g by having payments cut off) is the current policy and I know from first hand experience that it is damaging to women, particularly single mums, because it is framed in terms of the woman not being a productive member of society rather than her own wellbeing. This harm is exacerbated if the woman also has a disability and/or is a minority and therefore has greater difficulty finding employment because blame is put on the woman for not finding work. To say that the UBI would take away this ‘incentive’ of avoiding poverty therefore plays into the existing system which already thinks that women are lazy and unwilling to look for work and so must threaten them to incentivise them. This is not a feminist system and the ‘incentive’ is a false one. The UBI would be more feminist because it acknowledges the work that women do already and does not try to create a nominal feminist state, in which value is judged by women’s numerical participation rather than the benefit they receive from work, through threats of privation.

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