What would it be like if we didn't have to work?
Being a student is a very costly business. 3 years of tuition is going to cost you around £10k, and a maintenance loan is going to double your debt. Brighton is very expensive – accommodation will set you back about £350 per month, and then you’ve got to pay for travel, food, sports membership, course packs.
That makes about £500. And you haven’t had a drop to drink yet. How different would your university experience be if you received £1000 per month from the government – not a loan, a grant for all adults, regardless of whether they work or not? Not a grant that you have to qualify for, a grant that you get for being an adult.
This is the policy advocated by Götz Werner and Benediktus Hardorp, a German businessman and economist respectively. They call it the Basic Income. In Werner’s view, a job must meet three criteria. It should give you a sense of self fulfilment, it should be useful to society, and it should be a job you are qualified for. In Britain today, most people’s jobs do not meet all of these conditions.
Countless students do summer jobs to pay back their overdrafts – jobs they are overqualified for, and which often don’t give them a sense of self fulfilment. Every year East Slope, Lewes Court and the other residences get so many applications for their summer cleaning jobs that they have to turn some away. We depend on work for pay, and as a result we are forced to do jobs which we dislike and are not suited to us.
The point of the Basic Income is to free us from this sort of work, and to enable us to choose the sort of job which meets the three criteria for us. If you received £1000 per month from the state, you would not be compelled to take the first job available, and you could afford to do a job which you love but doesn’t pay too well. Even at high school, thousands chose their A-levels on the basis of the necessity of getting a well paid job, and at university this is yet more extreme. The separation of work and pay – the primary objective of the Basic Income – would transform the way we think about our studies, careers and ambitions.
Sounds great. But is it affordable? Werner and Hardorp are adamant that it is. The Basic Income would replace virtually all other state benefits – pensions, unemployment benefit, and child benefit – and all of this money would contribute to funding the Basic Income. Hardorp has calculated that in Germany, this money would already be sufficient to pay everybody a Basic Income of around £500 per month.
On top of this, billions would be saved in bureaucracy. We spend a fortune checking that those claiming unemployment benefit really are out of work. The beauty of the Basic Income is its simplicity – everybody over the age of 18 is eligible.
So the Basic Income is clearly affordable. But would people still go out to work if they received a Basic Income? Would you look for a job after graduating, or would you just live off the Basic Income? Surveys suggest that about 60% of people would keep their jobs, 30% of people would change jobs or work less hours at the same job, and 10% would look at other possibilities – further study, travel or caring for relatives for example. The Basic Income is what it says – basic. £1000 per month is generous compared to the benefits we have now, but most people would want to earn more to pay for luxuries.
But who would do the unpleasant jobs – toilet cleaning and road maintenance for example? If everybody had a Basic Income, why would anybody do these jobs? Werner’s answer is that the introduction of the Basic Income would bring about dramatic improvements in the pay and working conditions of these jobs, leading to a reduction in the wealth gap. Secondly, with higher labour costs, there would be a greater incentive to invest in technology, reducing the number of unpleasant jobs.
The introduction of the Basic Income is still a long way off, but it is far from impossible. Different versions of a Basic Income are already in place in parts of Namibia and Brazil. The former German President Horst Köhler said he believed the Basic Income should at least be considered, and for the first time, the Green Party has come out in favour of a ‘Citizen’s Income’. With the current economic recession, the pensions crisis and huge national debt, it is clear that we need new ideas.
The lack of interest in the recent Labour leadership election reflects the absence of any real challenges to the coalition government. The Basic Income would have to be introduced gradually – it could not be brought in overnight. It would not solve all of our problems. But the ramifications would be tremendous. Introducing the Basic Income would prevent graduation day from being the start of a long search for a job that you don’t like and are overqualified for, or a job that pays well but otherwise has no appeal.