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Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Why the Green Party's Citizen's Income Would Benefit Us All

Given that it is almost impossible to pick up a copy of one of the tabloids without reading some or other article about 'scroungers', 'dole spongers' or 'benefits cheats', it might seem that the Green Party's promise of a guaranteed income for all is a hard policy to sell to the voters. However, despite the context of condemnation of the disadvantaged and the 'Benefits Street' poverty porn demonisation of the poor, its high time to shout as loud as we can about a policy that will actually bring positive advantages to everyone. Green Party policy states:

EC730 A Citizen's Income sufficient to cover an individual's basic needs will be introduced, which will replace tax-free allowances and most social security benefits (see EC711). A Citizen's Income is an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to each individual as a right of citizenship. It will not be subject to means testing and there will be no requirement to be either working or actively seeking work.

It may seem on the surface that offering a universal basic income to everyone, including those who do not seem to be making the effort to look for work, will just encourage people to put their feet up and live off the taxpayer. This is what the tabloids would shout from the rafters. However this superficial emotion-based argument completely misses the point about how to encourage people into work. It is not whether or not people have an income or not that counts it is whether work pays ie whether you earn more if you work than if you don't. It is the gap that matters. At the moment we have thousands of people stuck in what is termed the 'poverty trap', meaning that their various benefits give them a higher income than getting a job would. This is indeed untenable and needs to change. However the primary cause of it is not generous benefits but the fact that we live in an economy based on low pay ie a minimum wage that is not a living wage, zero hours contracts with no guaranteed income and the importation of the cheapest labour from the EU in order to keep wages down. As a result, the taxpayer has to fork out millions to top up the earnings of the low paid in order to subsidise their exploitative employers and private landlords who are making money out of this crazy situation. Meanwhile for many facing a choice between working for a non-living wage or living on benefits that are slightly higher, the latter is the obvious choice.

The Citizen's Income however would be a major step to solving this. For a start, in order to attract a workforce, wages would have to rise to a higher level than the income. The higher the Citizen's Income is then the higher the minimum wage would have to be, its as simple as that. Clearly it would have to be paid to EU migrants as well (and the tabloids would howl) or free movement of labour in the EU curtailed, however the result would be that wages for those in work on the lowest incomes would have to rise as a result of the guaranteed income. Without the ability to keep a pool of people in total poverty as a means of threatening the poor into accepting the lowest of wages, and without the ability to use people from Eastern Europe to work for next to nothing then wages in general would have to go up. And this benefits us all.

It benefits us all in less obvious ways. For a start it would reduce crime. The main reason why it benefits the middle classes to have a benefits system for the poor is that you are less likely to get your house burgled or your car stereo pinched. If people have no income then their choices are crime, charity/food banks or prostitution. Threatening to remove the benefits of those, 'not actively seeking work' always was a tabloid headline grabbing fallacy that is causing far more social problems than it solves. Who wouldn't rather burgle a house than starve? The Citizen's Income would guarantee everyone a basic income without any moralistic caveats or attempts to distinguish the 'deserving poor' from the 'feckless' and as such would mean that there is less need for not but food banks but also petty crime. I'm not suggesting that it would solve all petty crime, where people have already built up patterns of behaviour, but it would surely have some effect. Coupled with a serious attempt (backed up with serious government spending) to get people off hard drugs, I suspect it could have a major effect.

The Citizen's Income would benefit the taxpayer in the long run by reducing the need to subsidise the wages of the low paid with umpteen other benefits because their wages themselves have risen, especially when coupled with the Green Party policy of raising the minimum wage to a living wage. It would reduce the need for food banks and the constant fear of petty crime which exists in certain areas of our major cities. Above all, it would ensure that wages in general would have to increase and that brings benefits to far more people than those at the very bottom of the pile.

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