UBI: A New form of Welfare?

Sheffield UBI is a very modest yet appealing alternative to the current state of the social security system insofar as it advocates that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure, at the very least, “basic levels of fairness” through the implementation of a UBI programme. As a product of the liberal democratic post-war regime, the UK’s social security system is in decline. It no longer fosters a basic level of fairness due to the government’s support of the private sector’s role in the administration of traditionally government-public services. The grounds for this was set under previous Neoliberal economic Conservative government regimes, but began under New Labour in the emergence of ATOS, but was radically expanded in the form of annual multi-million pound public-private contracts which have effectively outsourced the parts of the system that decides on a claimants eligibility to be ‘awarded’ benefits by private companies such as ATOS, Maximus, Capita and the U.S. Insurance giant, Unum Providence, who also play a major role in profiting from this system, with it’s key members acting as official government advisors.

The private administration of the social security system by these entities are not concerned with basic levels of fairness insofar as fairness equates to ensuring that a claimant is ‘entitled’ to social security. Rather, the claimant is ‘awarded’ the benefit through the administration of non-medical Biopsychosocial assessments that are intended to test a claimant’s eligibility for the benefit (as is the case for PIP and ESA claimants. This form of institutional governance correlates with one of the six modes of administrative justice, which is outlined by Dr Michael Adler as the Market model. The market model is, unsurprisingly, concerned primarily with matching supply and demand, economic efficiency and payment by results.

The payment by results market model offers very little regard for the human cost it creates, alongside any accountability. The system’s market prioritisation of efficiency in accumulating profits amounts to a payment by results objective whereby employees who conduct the ‘fit to work’ assessments (conducted approximately every 5 years) are required to meet targets designed to get as many people off the benefit as possible. Kicking people off benefits does not, as propaganda drives suggest, lead to people into work. Instead, it either results in suicide, homelessness, starvation (among sectors of the disabled) or going through the often confusing process of having a month to contest the removal of the benefit through making a mandatory reconsideration (MR was introduced by the government in 2013 with the intention to stem the rising tide of claimants winning back their benefit through independent tribunal cases).

It should also be stressed, as Mo Stewart (disability researcher and activist) reveals, that disability and illness is understood in a very archaic way from the view of the corporate giants who administer non-medical fitness to work assessments. This underlying archaism is reflected by it’s principal founder, Mansell Aylward, who regards illness in a psychosocial way. In other words, his pseudo-medical claim is that ‘illness is a belief’ and getting better is merely a matter of ‘thinking oneself well’. An additionally archaic theory surrounding the market model is underscored by the guilty until proven innocent mentality towards claimants as evidenced by the 2001 Woodstock Malingering and illness deception conference, as Stewart discusses.

These lingering dogmatic and archaic ideas sustain a market model of the social security system that prioritises market values which is designed to run roughshod over individual claimants. The strict conditionalities and means testing regime is highly punitive and, if anything, induces an aversion to employment for fear of having benefits taken away or changed. It is in this context that we can even concur with the observation made by Milton Friedman that the fear of the unemployed poor stems largely from their uncertainty of the long-term security of the job that came up.

Thus, the introduction of UBI and the removal of much of the conditionalities and means testing is encouraging as it is likely to give claimants a greater ‘sense’ of personal autonomy to do something fulfilling that offers creative value to their lives. It also may serve to act as a safety net for those who risk losing their jobs due to the rise in automation, something that Bank of England has recognised will affect 15 million jobs by 2030.

Despite the chatter over jobs, we should emphasise that the idolisation of jobs as somehow representing a solution to claimant’s ill-health or disability is naïve when we consider the 5 million precariats (those who work in unstable working conditions) working in zero-hours contracts and the annual 50,000 deaths arising from work related illnesses that have been revealed by Hazards Campaign. As a result, we are tempted to agree with Guy Standing’s surmisation, namely: “It is a middle-class prejudice to think that jobs the unemployed are driven to take are conducive to good working habits and labour commitment.”

While UBI may seek to replace the inherent unjust market model of social security and offer short to medium term alleviation of poverty by an existing punitive social security system, we also emphasise that it will not solve the ideologically motivated neoliberal cuts to other public services that ultimately affect people’s sense of social cohesion and belonging. In fact, it may risk creating the future backdrop for a welfare system that exists within a completely marketized or privatised environment, whereby everyone’s access to a formerly public services will be measured around the amount of income they receive. On the other hand, it may create fertile grounds for a more enlightened conception of future forms of welfare which should create an environment that is free from a society that demonises dependency by conflating it with scrounging, fecklessness and greed.

Evidence from the political right suggests that UBI may produce minimally good effects for the wider population while mainly being beneficial for business. For instance, Milton Friedman’s argument of Negative Income Tax (NIT), his version of a basic income, provides a supplemental income at various levels to people earning under the national average. According to Friedmanites such as Gary Becker, this is “the most minimally distorting” method as it doesn’t completely disincentivise someone to enter work and improve their own material status. This is greatly beneficial to businesses because they may no longer be obligated to pay the national minimum wage, resulting in a freer, more flexible labour market. However, it is somewhat dispiriting to see that some on the left who advocate arguments based on degrowth argue that work rates didn’t decrease when people were given “free money” in the form of UBI. It is dispiriting because even if UBI resulted in a decrease in work people on the Left are still subscribing to the arguments that exist within the framework of neoliberal thinking. For instance, the argument for UBI is completely compatible here with the dictates of instrumental market rationality and a flexible labour market in the form of zero-hour contracts that’s promoted by the neoliberal Friedmanites.

Friedman’s implication of UBI is, like the corporate, political elite and the maxim of self-interest that’s driven into the heads of the middle-classes, is that everyone acts “rationally” in their own self-interest as consumer citizens. This is not necessarily true when it applies to the disabled and others who are alienated and atomised from society due to disillusionment which may well stem from a lack of greater political participation and a community that exists outside of the fleeting, increasingly commercialised social landscape of the online world. Those whose self-interest isn’t anchored to self-enriching proprietarian ‘virtues’ may not even desire greater material wealth. Cash helps, but it doesn’t exactly change the mindless consumption echoed in the grow or die, unsustainable, accumulate and dispossession nature of market systems. Nor does it help create communities outside of the business-oriented “community.”

UBI may be appealing if it allows people to be left to their own devices to explore their creative interests in a way that they may have never had the chance. If they don’t have such an creative impulse then it should be tolerated because that we supposedly live in a democracy that values individual autonomy, even though individual autonomy is largely understood in the context of amorphous private entities that collectively calls itself ‘the market’. However, the fabric of society and the individual is shaped by wider social rights and the social community. It will be interesting to see whether UBI is capable of doing this, or if it is just operating in synchronisation with the continued neoliberal restructuring of the economy towards the reckless grow or die mentality of the market.










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