In this first interlocuter session for SociologyMag, I interview Dr. Dave Beck who is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Salford. His area of expertise revolves around food poverty in the UK and he is also a strong advocate for universal basic income. He recently chaired at the Basic Income North conference in Manchester which featured Andy Burnham of the Labour Party as well as a number of foremost speakers on the subject. Today we will be discussing some of the issues around universal basic income.
Brian: In brief, what is a universal basic income?
Dave: Strangely, it is both easy and difficult to give a brief answer to what a UBI is. In brief, a universal basic income is real social security, or social security as it should be. It’s a modest, unconditional regular payment to everyone equally. In greater detail, a UBI is:
It is a payment made to everyone, equally. It is not means-tested like current welfare payments so it doesn’t exclude anyone rich or poor. Rather, it is like the NHS or fire service which are there for everyone regardless of level of income.
It is also an unconditional payment which, as above, means that it is open to everyone, but it also means that it is not based on any conditions of behaviour (like todays Universal Credit system is). No one can take it off you. It will simply arrive in your bank account without ever having to prove anything.
…in that it is only enough to cover your basic needs or just enough to cover the cost of being alive in the UK today. So, it would be a basic amount that would cover the cost of food, shelter, and a modest amount for other necessary expenditure. Most UBI organisations don’t offer a numerical amount because that can become a little misleading. What I can say, is that many countries have piloted a basic income so we can take a figure somewhere in-between to be representative. For example, in Stockton, California, they gave people $500 (approx. £400) per month, whilst in Wales recipients are receiving £1,600 per month. So, when I’m discussing UBI with my students, I get them to think about a payment of £1,000 per month.
It is a cash payment direct into your bank on a regular period (weekly or monthly), not a one-off yearly lump sum. Because it is unconditional, it has to be paid in cash. Vouchers wouldn’t work because, like with SNAP in the USA, food stamps place limits on what they can be spent on. A cash-based UBI places no such restrictions.
Brian: Why do you think the idea of UBI has become much more prominent recently?
Dave: I think Covid was the main reason. People being locked-down, unable to go out to work and the government recognising that people need to be able to go to work, earn, and spend. It is a shame that it took a serious crisis such as Covid for everyone to recognise that things can be done in a much better way; that a true social security system should be there to actually support people, not to punish them as Universal Credit does.
In 1797 Tom Paine wrote a pamphlet called ‘Agrarian Justice’. His main argument was that we are all born into this world equally, with equal claim over everything that makes up the world; the commons – the land, the sea, the minerals, the sky etc., they all belonged to us equally. The problem is that at some point in the history of empire, money, trade, and capitalism, some people decided to put a fence around part of the world and said ‘Well, actually, I’m going to own this bit. If you want some of it, you can buy its produce from me’. Paine’s argument in Agrarian Justice was that this, over generations, created a misappropriated wealth, and that these extremely wealthy people now, therefore, owe a restitution to every other inhabitant for taking this commons resource from them. This is, in my view, the main argument on a historical level.
Over the last 20 years or so, we have also entered a situation where social policy has not been used to support society as it should have done. We have entered a state of permacrisis where we hit one crisis after another. The big three crises that have come to define the start of the century: The Great Recession, Brexit, and Covid, have all had direct impact upon or influenced the next. Each of these have become interconnected with other volatile flashpoints in our society which, in my opinion, are all driven by the neoliberal capitalist system and the poverty and inequality that it creates.
The neoliberal system of parasitic exploitation of labour has exacerbated inequality to the point where the wealthiest in our society, led by many of the political elite, have realised that ‘getting away with it‘ is easier than it has ever been. We saw this on display as the Covid procurement fast-lane represented a big two-fingers up and a fuck you as friends of Tory politicians were given lucrative multi-million-pound contracts almost overnight, mostly to deliver nothing. This was a serious case of ‘look what we can do and get away with it’.
I’m not a populist, but I’m currently looking at our political elite and wondering how we let them deceive us to this shit-show of faux democracy. The answer was selling us the bollocks of neoliberalism in the 1970s.
So, back to your question – why has the idea of UBI become more popular? I think that some people have just recognised that we are drastically unequal. In our post-Covid-world (if I can call it that yet), people are recognising the serious levels of inequality and it’s about time people took back what belongs to them.
Today, in my current role as a social policy academic, I see the political and social justice argument for a universal basic income too and this is leading to modern discussions about it. Covid, and the permacrisis of neoliberalism, shows we need to do things differently and that unfairness, inequality, and poverty are not just bad for the poor, they are also bad for the rich too. This is why the wealthiest in society (i.e., those who Tom Paine would recognise in a modern-day sense), Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Jeff Bezos et al., all support people having a UBI. The simple answer of why they support it is because their businesses are built on people spending their earned cash in their businesses. Unfortunately, automation and A.I. are removing some of these jobs, so the wealthy realise that ‘if no one is earning, then no one is spending. If no one is spending, then I’m not earning’. So, they literally need us to have money so we can spend it.
Brian: What sort of things are happening right now in the UK regarding UBI?
Dave: In the UK there is lots happening. There has been the launch of two pilot projects – one in Wales with care-experienced young people receiving £1,600 per month for two years, and there has also recently been the announcement of a pilot in two areas of England (Finchley and Jarrow) where 30 people will also receive £1,600 per month, again for two years. This English pilot is open to any resident, so should give us extra areas of evidence and data above the Wales pilot.
I say this because the very idea of all recent UBI pilots has all been to focus on a specific demographic. This has been excellent, as it has allowed us to see it from a multitude of areas, such as those who are care experienced (Wales) and the long-term unemployed (Finland). This England pilot is also going to be excellent as it doesn’t place restrictions on people who can apply, so you could have a job and still apply.
There are several organisations that exist around the UK (and the world) who are involved in UBI, and I take an active/collaborative role in most of them. For example, the England pilot is being organised by one of the UKs leading UBI organisations, Autonomy, along with the Basic Income Conversation. Beyond this there is the UBILab Network, a network of local and regional ‘labs’ who experiment with discussions, forums, research, advocacy, writing, etc. on UBI. It operates like a science lab where we test ideas and examine data. For this Network, I co-chair two ‘labs’ – the UBILab Manchester and the UBILab Food. Manchester, as with other labs in the network is geographically based, but the UBILab Food, along with the UBILabs LGBTQ+, Youth, Women etc. are non-geographic and aim to be open spaces for anyone with an interest in understanding how a UBI could be beneficial for a certain demographic.
Outside of these, other organisations exist such as the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) which is the oldest organisation examining UBI. My involvement with them is that I co-organise and facilitate the UBI TV channel and Podcast on YouTube where we get to speak to leading voices in the UBI movement.
If any readers are interested, then please drop me an email, because we are a friendly and inviting place.
Brian: There have been various trials around the world which have taken place, some of which have been misrepresented in the media as having failed. How do you feel about the research landscape around UBI?
Dave: So, the most prominent of these is the experiment that took place in Finland which was accused by a right-wing government of being a total failure. There were also issues with it being halted early following the election of a more right-wing government. However, in terms of understanding motivations and a sense of care, it was a huge success. Receiving a UBI made people feel better. Just think about the impacts on stress, anxiety, and ill health if people just started to feel more relaxed.
The research landscape of UBI is increasing, and rightly so. As we know from experiments within social policy, there have to be many pilots, and that’s what we are seeing now with pilots across the world looking at a UBI from certain perspectives. There have never been so many academic peer-reviewed publications about UBI as we have now. Books, journal articles, YouTube content, podcasts, and the media have all taken an interest in UBI, and this is great!
Brian: Levels of poverty in the UK are pretty bad right now. One of your specialist areas is food poverty. What kind of effect do you think the introduction of UBI would have on that?
Dave: In simple terms a UBI ends poverty. So, my position on this is clear, that a UBI would close every single food bank across the UK.
Further, a UBI would take enormous steps towards ending food insecurity. It would give people more money to buy more food. Not only this, it would also allow people to be far more connected to food; the food they choose to buy and where they choose to buy it from. I see a UBI building a better food economy, a more sustainable, durable and healthier food economy for all. I see a UBI as being totally transformative to our current unequal food system.
Think of it this way – let’s say all things in your life stay the same such as your job, income, etc. and now you have an extra £1,000 per adult in your house in the form of a UBI. This is a direct guarantee that you can now buy food. Not just the Asda Smart Price or Tesco Value food which is potentially higher in salt, fat, or of lower and cheaper quality, but you actually have the choice of picking better quality food.
You think, feel, and actually do become healthier. So, just by giving people the ability to buy better food we are actually transforming large parts of society and the economy. As people make healthier food choices, they become healthier creating a beneficial impact on reducing the future costs of obesity or diabetes on the NHS (and taxpayers). Now, that’s one way in which a UBI makes economic sense through food. The next is that people may have more of an inclination and an ability to buy local. Supermarkets have long been to blame for the decline in local retailers due to costs. So, we may also see a revival of local butchers, bakers, or grocers all with the anchoring effect of keeping money within the local community instead of that money being funnelled down to London to fill the pockets of CEOs and their boards; all because we have given people money to spend.
On this, I’m actually thinking about how the development of local currency, such as that which happened in Totness a decade ago, could provide the basis of how this could work to support local businesses. For example, if you could transform part of your UBI payment each month into a local currency (such as the ‘Plymouth Pound’, or the ‘Dundee Dollar’) and that this could be done at a slightly higher rate so that it is attractive to do so, and that this local currency could only be spent in local shops in the local economy, then this would actually help to give a much needed boost to the local businesses and work towards re-writing some of the economic inequalities we see regionally too.
Brian: In your YouTube video, UBI as a Reduction in Crime, you argue that UBI can partially be paid for through the savings from paying for policing, court, prisons, probation services etc. Which other areas do you think UBI could draw savings from in order to fund it?
Dave: Put it this way, poverty is expensive, and you can roll a turd in glitter, or polish it, but it’s still shit. As I have outlined above, a UBI would allow people to make better and healthier choices, and that this would have a direct and long-term saving on things such as the NHS. But we need to be realistic, well, politicians need to be realistic. In order for a UBI to be taken serious by both the public and the politicians, we need them to stop the short-termism in policy making, whereby politicians are only interested in making policy changes that benefit people over the short electoral cycle. Like with the introduction of Social Security outlined in the Beveridge Report, politicians need to make long-term policy changes, of which a UBI is. Long-termism helps with how a UBI is paid for.
Think of it this way, the current UC system keeps people in relative poverty and all means-tested systems effectively have in-built poverty traps that are carefully crafted to ensure that only a minority can escape. Means-testing makes the poor start from a position of suspicion, they have to prove why they need help. So, in general, means-testing is about asking people to bare their poverty to some absent bureaucrat whose actual job is to try to catch you out. Not that they want to, but the system in which they are forced to work makes them do this. They are emblematic of Lipsky’s ‘Street-Level Bureaucrats’. Unfortunately, the system is so punitive that the bureaucrat is only just above the poverty line themselves and probably experiences poverty too. This gives them the moral position.
Now, keeping people in relative poverty costs the taxpayer billions per year in things like the ironically named ‘Working’ Tax Credit (a state handout (effectively) to employers so that they can pay poverty wages), or Housing Benefit (needed because landlords are parasites sucking from the state), or free school meals (a state handout to large food companies via the handtied local authority). As with my argument about crime, if we think long term and move the costly expense of treating poverty and move this to the front of people’s lives, effectively preventing poverty in the first place, then those people will grow up healthier, happier, better people, and this will then cause savings in the long run (NHS and crime are just two examples). I’m no economist but to me that just makes economic sense.
Brian: Where do you think the main sources of resistance to implementing UBI are coming from?
Dave: In all honestly the main source of resistance comes from those who would probably benefit the most. Let’s take one such resistant group – the hard-working but low waged. Those who were perhaps born at the start of neoliberalism, saw their parents do well under Thatcher or Blair, and have been taught that meritocracy is the key to success. Its bollocks because that mentality seems to only benefit a minority of society as we can’t all achieve the heights of success or it simply becomes a zero-sum game. Those who benefit the most are those who are probably already half-way up the mountain thus takes half the effort.
This creates resentment towards ‘other’ people as blame is apportioned to compensate; the working-class describing others as ‘lazy’ or benefit scroungers, or especially the migrant who becomes the default victim. It is encouraged by the neoliberal meritocratic system. But can we say that meritocracy exists in a modern society when some people have such great connections and others have none?
So, within my work with the UBI Lab this is what we try to do, communicate UBI to the public, to break the myths that have been planted by the right-wing press that surround UBI. One such myth is that people will simply stop work because of the idea that this is free money for nothing. We discuss the ‘basic’ element with people, that UBI only helps with the basics, and that people actually want to have more than just the bare basics, because that’s what makes life worth living.
Brian: Some common arguments I see on social media regularly tend to emphasise that universal basic income is communism, that it will make people lazy, it will stop them from working, or that it will be in the form of digital currency and allow governments to control our access to money. How would you respond to those claims?
Dave: So, on the communism question, this is something that I get accused of often. A UBI is far from being communist. Okay, granted, everyone receives the same basic level of income from a UBI payment. But a UBI only pays you the income you need and not the income you want. So, you would still need to work. So now we are starting to move away from the idea that it is a communist thing. Next, communism would like to see the inevitable decline of capitalism but UBI greases the wheels of capitalism because people spend it and continue to take part in the capitalist system.
On laziness, as above, its only basic, and no one is happy just living from day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, people want things, they have ambition. So, no, it won’t make people lazy. The pilots that have happened have also evidenced this. In Stockton, California, those receiving a UBI payment used the money to buy interview clothes, to get to work, and increase their hours. In the various parts of Africa, entrepreneurship and small business ownership increased where a UBI was being trialled.
As a sociologist, I normally tend to ask ‘what is work, anyway? Why does what I do for a small part of the day define what I am?’. I’m a sociologist, paid by a university, but only between 9-5 Monday-Friday. For the rest of the day (and including my paid time) I’m a dad, a brother, a son, a cook, a commuter, a runner, a cyclist; the list can be endless. Perhaps we need to de-couple ‘work’ from income which is effectively what a UBI allows us to do.
Think about parents of small children, society damns them for having kids. At the end of the maternity/paternity period they have the choice to either pay for someone to look after their kids in a nursery (damned for not raising their own kids and prioritising returning to work), or, if they do choose to stay at home, they are labelled as lazy and punched-down on as being a ‘stay-at-home’ parent. My question is, why is it wrong to stay at home and raise your own kids but it’s okay to pay someone most of your wage to raise them for you?
I’d say raising children to be nice people, calm, respectful members of society is hard work, and parents do not get rewarded enough for it. Yes, things like this can be achieved outside of the family/household, but schools, as institutions, simply do not function in this way because it’s not productive for schools on tight budgets and league tables to have nice, creative kids – they need to have efficient kids who can get good grades no matter the cost.
On digital currency, if I’m honest, does make me stop and ponder the ethics of it. I don’t like the fact that we are all simply 1’s and 0’s on some financial algorithm and that we can just have our UBI ‘turned-off’ as and when the government wishes. That to me is more dictatorial than anything. But, let’s be real, we live in a digital currency society now, so what would be different? We all get paid in the bank, we all pay on Google/Apple Pay, or shop online. These are all just a series of 1’s and 0’s, so we already have a digital currency. Yes, we have the ability to go and draw out all our cash, but that would have to still continue with a UBI otherwise you are not actually getting a ‘U’ BI. As we discussed at the start. The ‘unconditionality’ of basic income is foundational. If the government has access to control our money, then it’s not unconditional. The system we have today in Universal Credit is conditional and it is controlled and turned-off (sanctioned) by the DWP, and that’s what a UBI is moving away from. So, in short, a UBI could never be turned-off by any government. You get paid. Every month. For the rest of your life.
Brian: To help students reading this, can you recommend any good resources on the topic?
Dave: As already noted above, I have made several YouTube videos about it and they are available on my Channel, Thatsociologist. I also have several publications (academic and non-academic) all available on my website www.povertyresearch.co.uk but they are also all available via my university profile. As I said above, I’m also involved in the newly founded UBI TV YouTube and Podcast on Spotify, so watch this space!
My own interest in UBI really came from reading the book ‘Bullshit Jobs’ by the brilliant David Graeber, ‘Utopia for Realists’ by Rutger Bregman, ‘The Precariat’ and the many other publications by Guy Standing, plus the many YouTube clips by both Bregman and Standing.
But in the UBILab Network, as with Autonomy, or the Basic Income Conversation, BIEN, we also have plenty of accessible publications to read and watch.
Brian: I think I can say that what you have said is incredibly informative and highlights some the very important arguments in favour of UBI. As a final note I would like to thank Dave for taking the time to do this interview. I think it’s fair to say that this is a guy who is really working hard to bring UBI to a reality and I genuinely, at a personal level, hope he and the others who are working to achieve the same goals see this come to a reality.
Here is a reminder of some of the resources and links discussed in the interview:
- Dave’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/ThatSociologist
- Dave’s YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@thatsociologist
- Dave’s Website: www.povertyresearch.co.uk
- Dave’s University Profile: https://www.salford.ac.uk/our-staff/dave-beck
- UBILab Network: https://www.ubilabnetwork.org/
- Basic Income Earth Network: https://basicincome.org/
- Autonomy: https://autonomy.work/basic-income/