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Basic Income: Restructuring the economy

In a climate of savage cuts to welfare and public services it would hardly seem the time to propose giving every adult in the country a £1,700 cheque every month for doing absolutely nothing. But the Swiss will soon vote on whether to do just that. Activists have secured sufficient support for a 2,500 Swiss franc universal Basic Income to trigger a referendum on its introduction – the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The proposed Basic Income would be entirely unconditional and given to every citizen regardless of whether they are rich or poor. It's a bold proposal aimed at guaranteeing a reasonably comfortable living for all citizens, eradicating poverty, granting more freedom to each individual to determine their own lives and strengthening the participation of all in society. Meanwhile, back in the UK, our economy may be slowly recovering but we are still experiencing high unemployment and unprecedented levels of underemployment. Living standards continue to plummet as wages fall in real terms and it's now estimated that 500,000 people are using food banks. The Red Cross has set up emergency food provision for the first time since the war. Our fixation with perpetual growth and over-consumption continues to take us further down the road of social and environmental destruction. Our connection between ‘more’ and ‘better’ has become fundamentally broken. Whether you favour austerity or stimulus spending, neither approach is likely to bring about the desired restructuring of our economy, away from one which is solely dependent on growth and towards one which values the things that really matter to people, like health, happiness, equality and meaningful employment. Could the introduction of a Basic Income offer a new route out of the multiple crises we face and aid the transition away from growth dependence? Variations of a universal Basic Income have already been trialled in various countries, including India, Canada, Namibia, Brazil and also in Alaska, and the results have generally been positive. Many critics believed that a Basic Income would lead to reduced productivity, but the pilot projects actually found the opposite to be true – a Basic Income frees people up to improve their skills and their efforts and do something that actually makes a bigger overall contribution to society. Other potential benefits include better work opportunities as a result of people being more able to afford education or business start-ups, more balanced power in the labour market as a result of not needing work out of desperation, and reduced crime as a result of lower levels of deprivation, while social justice is achieved efficiently and automatically with less dependency on charity and welfare. In terms of cost, the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) has produced several fully-financed proposals showing Basic Income to have a lower overall cost than means-tested social welfare benefits. The increase in income amongst those who have a higher propensity to spend would also have a strong stimulus effect. But, more importantly, with a guaranteed basic income many people would opt for a shorter working week, helping to address a number of interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, low well-being and the lack of time to live sustainably, care for each other and enjoy life. It would therefore help to create a steady state, rather than a growth-dependent economy. There are Basic Income movements all over the world and proposals vary considerably. The idea has been around for decades but since the financial crisis, and the world slowly waking up to the astonishing levels of inequality that exist, it has started to gain more traction. At the time of writing there is no date for the Swiss referendum, but if the vote is in favour it could mark a turning point in the approach to welfare around the world. A recent YouGov poll showed that 74% of Brits believe the state should provide a decent minimum income for all. Basic Income would not be a divisive right-left issue. It would be popular with the left, as it would prevent people from falling through the cracks of a complex system of individual benefits, and it would be popular with the right, as it would mean the end of some or all existing benefits, depending on the eventual amount paid. Welfare has become a dirty word in this country and the welfare state is under systematic attack by all major parties. Unlike any other policy, Basic Income has the potential to unite, in principle at least, the whole population and parties across the political spectrum. With all the talk of right and left, and none of right and wrong, few could argue that the introduction of a Basic Income is simply the right thing to do. )

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