Universal Basic Income
Sally Lerner on sharing work more fairly
from The Jobs Letter No.76 / 14 April 1998
Canadian academic Sally Lerner,was keynote speaker at the second annual conference of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) NZ Network, held in Wellington late last month. Sally is co-ordinator of the Futurework internet conference.
Sally Lerner strongly supports the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) because
she believes it will let paid and unpaid work to be shared more fairly and could open up
employment for the low-skilled while giving them sufficient income to participate in society. She argues
that the UBI will mean more real choice of jobs, and higher pay for the most unpleasant jobs
in society. There would be work for all who want it, the poverty trap can be avoided, and
consumer spending maintained among people most likely to contribute to local economies.
In this special feature, we present some highlights from Sally Lerner's keynote address to
the recent UBI-NZ National Conference held 26-28 March 1998, in Wellington.
- ON THE CHANGING NATURE OF WORK
Over the past two decades, policy makers in New Zealand, Britain and Canada
have moved from `European-style' social democratic initiatives that supported investment in
community well-being and the universality that made this politically acceptable toward
increasing infatuation with the `tougher' U.S. stance. The U.S. model has favoured targeted social
spending, yet has widened the gap between rich and poor while holding down official
unemployment figures by proliferating low-wage McJobs and prison sentences.
Where this model prevails, middle and low-income families have been losing ground, and
more jobs are low-paid and precarious. The rich grow wealthier, a few obscenely so, while an
atmosphere of insecurity and anxiety about employment becomes palpable among the rest of
Re-engineering, downsizing, `rightsizing' in all their versions created increasing numbers
of underemployed, insecurely employed and unemployed. While youth unemployment is
publicly discussed as the most urgent problem, in Canada, for every unemployed young person under
30, there are now almost two unemployed older workers.
- While there is still strong public resistance to abandoning the vulnerable and less
fortunate in society, there has been an unrelenting effort to `manufacture consent' for substantial
reductions in a wide range of provincial and federal social expenditures. Politicians promote
training as the ultimate panacea for unemployment and poverty. They refuse to question whether
there will be jobs for all who want and need them.
While upgrading basic literacy, numeracy and computer skills can be viewed with more
favour than specific training for jobs that may never materialize, there are concerns about raising
the hopes for employment of those in training programs without some certainty that secure,
adequately-waged jobs will be available for them.
"There is good and useful work that needs doing in our communities. We should begin
a reasoned discussion of the rationale for and ways to provide a basic income as a right to all
citizens, so that people can get on with this work..."
No one can say what those `good' jobs might be, since its forecast that only about 20%
of North Americans will be needed for highly paid "symbolic-analyst" positions. More recently,
the spread of `elite' knowledge skills around the globe calls into question the job and pay security
of even that sector.
Low-skilled repetitive production work that stays will gradually be automated, leaving
the majority in the labour force with the option of low-paid "person-to-person" service jobs in
the health care, tourism, and hospitality sectors.
- ON DEBATING THE FUTURE OF WORK
Despite the fundamental changes in the nature of work, there is great reluctance, on the
part of the general public as well as among bureaucrats and politicians, to examine scenarios
and options for the future other than `full employment' as it has traditionally been conceived.
Yet, contradicting this as a goal is the constant call from the private sector for `labour
flexibility', which translates to `just-in-time' contingent and part-time workers whose lower wages
and minimal or no benefits make them less costly. How can these visions of work be reconciled?
Answers currently on offer veer from reducing job demand to increasing job supply. Some
spread-the-work advocates promote a 32-hour work week and more worker control. Business
interests advocate reduced payroll taxes, while some government decision makers talk of legislated
overtime reduction and other ways of creating stronger employment demand.
But there is no serious discussion of a near-future with far too few secure, adequately-waged
jobs for those who seek them, and much of what we use and consume provided by smart
machines. Neither the dangers nor the opportunities of these new realities are being seriously addressed.
While employed people are working longer hours than ever before, it is not clear how many
new jobs would be created by reduction of overtime work or even of the standard work week by
as much as 10 hours.
- The wide range of policy proposals and pilot projects that have focused on reduction
of individual work time as one way to address a diminishing supply of traditional paid jobs
suggest that what could be most effective in this respect is an innovative mix of shorter work weeks,
job sharing, and sabbatical leaves, earlier retirement from full-time employment and replacing
job-related taxes with resource-use taxes. Many analysts see this working only in conjunction
with some form of assured basic income program.
In the last analysis, if there are not going to be enough secure, full-time, adequately-waged jobs
in the future, both justice and societal interest dictate that we not continue to penalize and
stigmatize people who cannot find such positions, or who cannot cobble together a living by holding two
or three sub-standard jobs or contingent serial contracts.
All people should have the means to live decently, and beyond that it is in the
societal interest that everyone be able and motivated to participate fully and positively in community
life. The economic costs to society of long-term unemployment, as well as the damage to
individual mental health and to family and community functioning are well-understoodsubstance
abuse, family breakdown, mental health problems, even suicide.
- ON A BASIC INCOME proposal
How can we best look after our interests in this post-industrial era of new technologies
and a globalising economy? Most people sincerely believe that the only path to a bright future lies
in trying to return to a time of traditional `full employment'. They argue that the private sector
will create jobs if more tax breaks and other incentives appear, that the public sector could become
the employer of last resort, that a 32-hour work week would spread existing employment
around, that well-designed training can deliver skilled workers, and that a more entrepreneurial
culture would spawn myriad small businesses to create countless new jobs for them.
Undoubtedly there is some truth in each of these claims. But there are also difficulties with each
in terms of implementation, long-term effectiveness, or political acceptability. None of these
societal strategiesalone or even in combination can be considered fully adequate to deal with
the problems associated with massive long-term structural unemployment. Neither can a
traditional short-term social safety net that was designed for a full-employment society. There is really
no turning back to older welfare-state models, as tempting as that may be.
- To reduce human suffering, avoid probable unpleasant socio-political consequences,
protect the environment and provide a new framework for all people to contribute positively to
societal well-being, policy makers must, sooner rather than later, in consultation with an informed
public, begin to design and implement feasible alternative approaches to distributing work, income,
goods and services. At the very least, from a self-interested perspective, this will be required to
maintain social stability and a healthy consumer economy.
- The essence of the new realities is that while wealth continues to be created, there is
less need for people's labour in manufacturing and many servicesand when human labour is
needed, increasingly it can be found in low-wage countries. It is time to consider how to de-couple
income from traditional `jobs' that are not there for everyone. The extent to which, and how
rapidly, many forms of waged work will be phased out is still controversial. Certainly it is difficult
for most people to envision a society and, eventually, a world where relatively few workers
can provide all needed goods and services.
Claus Offe, professor of social policy at Berlin's Humboldt University and long-time proponent
of `citizens' income', writes: "As long as most wage earners contribute to the production of
wealth, the problem of distributing wealth is solved by each individual's employment contract and
the family support and social security arrangements tied to it. Once this ceases to be the case and
this supposedly `normal' condition...has disappeared for good, the problem of distribution can
be solved only by establishing specific economic rights that all citizens grant each other as a
component of their citizenship. The central idea of a `citizens' income' consists in the right to
sufficient income not conditional upon gainful employment..."
- There is good and useful work that needs doing in our communities. We should begin
a reasoned discussion of the rationale for and ways to provide a basic income as a right to all
citizens, so that people can get on with this work. Whether this BI would be unconditional or
conditioned on people's engagement in work involving needed activities for the community, the
environment and the general social good or designed in any one of the myriad other ways that
are being discussed must be the subject of public consultation and decision.
Deciding how to finance a basic income will be a central component of public debate about
the concept. The question has been considered in a number of countries as well as here, and
current ideas focus on a range of possibilities: savings from collapsing most of the social service
bureaucracy, a `Tobin tax' on currency speculation, a very small `bit tax' on all electronic transactions,
a variety of changes to income and corporate taxes, user-pay charges on use of
It is hard to imagine that the ingenious armies of economists and accountants will fail to come
up with a feasible means, once the desired end result is specified. The Irish are showing the way
with a recently-completed set of financing plans for a national basic income. It's time for policy
makers across the globe to address the issue.
A well-conceived, viable basic income program can serve as the foundation upon which
to build a more human, and humane, way of life. While entrepreneurs will still flourish,
everyone can share what waged work there is with full basic income security, free to devote more energy
to family concerns, community service, learning and self-development. In time, as people begin
to lead more balanced lives, societal values will adjust to recognize the value of these varied
activities and accord recognition appropriately for the many kinds of `good work' that income
Source: from Sally Lerner, "BASIC INCOME: Sowing the Seeds, Ensuring the Harvest" keynote paper to the New
Zealand UBI Conference, Wellington March 26-28 1998
Sally Lerner is a lecturer at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and a co-convenor of
the Futurework conference, an internet forum where many employment and community
economic development activists meet and share ideas. See The Jobs Letter No.57 "Internet Hotlinks"
Contact: Sally Lerner, Faculty of Environmental Studies, University of Waterloo,
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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