An income of one’s own: the citizen’s income

Bill Jordan says the citizen’s income is an idea whose time has come

October 17, 2012
6 min read

The current crisis of capitalism and the state has triggered one of the many moral panics about our benefits system that have recurred in UK history since the first national Poor Law was enacted in 1601. As always this panic includes hand-wringing about women whose lifestyles and behaviour threaten the domestic and public order and undermine economic progress.

What is distinctive about this panic, however, is that it involves a dim recognition that the whole tax-benefits system is malfunctioning and that ‘disorderly’ women might be a symptom of a far deeper set of issues about individual autonomy, the family, work, social cohesion and national prosperity. The idea of the proposed ‘universal credit’, which will replace a large number of means-tested benefits with a single one (which is strictly neither universal nor a credit), was hatched just before the crisis by the Conservative think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice, for reasons that had nothing to do with austerity and cuts.

Our benefits system owes its existence to the recognition by the government of Elizabeth I that some groups in society were not receiving an income sufficient for subsistence, either through property holdings, employment and the family or through charity and the church. But the government then, and ever since, could not resist the temptation to combine provision of income to the groups it identified as needy with administrative and moral discipline for those it saw as threats to the social order.

The authorities set up to give income support to the poor of each parish were also empowered to set up workhouses for the ‘idle sturdy beggars’ who disfigured the towns and cities, to whip or conscript into the military the ‘footloose vagabonds’ who roamed the countryside, and to confine and discipline the ‘whores and harlots’ who defied their husbands’ authority and shamed public morals. Today’s version of this policy is called the Work Programme.

Outdated benefits

Two things have changed since 1601, and they have made the situation much more complicated without improving it for those directly affected. First, the state found that, during a period of falling real wages and high public spending because of wars, it could not rely on property taxes to supply sufficient revenue, so it introduced an income tax in 1799. Originally just falling on the rich, its scope has gradually spread down the income scale, so that now even many of those receiving benefits are also paying tax on anything they earn.

Second, successive governments since 1908 have introduced benefits that are not linked to poverty itself, and that do not involve coercive conditions and loss of autonomy. The first of these was retirement pensions, and in 1948 a whole range of benefits for unemployment, sickness and long-term disability were based on National Insurance contributions, and not means tested.

Two features of the latter scheme made its effects less significant for women than for men. First, all the assumptions built into the rules on contributions and eligibility treated them as ‘dependants’ of their husbands if they were married and regarded their primary role as being in the home. Second, the rates of benefits were very low compared with other affluent countries, so the scheme left a growing proportion of people still dependent on means-tested provision, with all its stigma and complexity, while making the calculation of their need and entitlement far more difficult for them and the authorities.

The only new system that was unequivocally advantageous for all women was child benefit, originally called family allowance and pioneered by Eleanor Rathbone in the 1920s. Eventually this gave all women with children an unconditional sum, which was in their control, did not involve pleasing men (either partners or officials) and did not affect their eligibility for other benefits.

These advantages of child benefit are still unique; in the whole benefits system, it is the only one that unequivocally increases women’s autonomy. If child benefit was doubled, far more women would be able to choose the hours they worked, to leave abusive relationships and to avoid participation in meaningless government ‘training’ programmes. Better still, if all women received their whole benefits entitlement, or their income tax allowance, as a weekly cash payment like child benefit, then the demands of women’s movements would have been significantly advanced.

But best of all would be if men too were paid their benefits entitlements and income tax allowances in this form. It would mean that they were no longer required to seek full-time employment, and would be free to negotiate a shared responsibility for child care and domestic work, to participate in community work (which has always been done mainly by women) – and to refuse unpaid roles in Poundland under the Work Programme.

A citizen’s income

Such an idea sounds unfeasible, but this is exactly how it already is in Alaska and in Iran, in parts of Namibia and Brazil, and will soon be in Mongolia. It is called a ‘citizen’s income’ or ‘basic income’, people like Tom Paine and Bertrand Russell have been advocating it since the 1790s, and perhaps its time has come.

The current crisis has brought about a questioning of the viability of the tax-benefits system that goes well beyond ‘affordability’. The universal credit reform is not primarily an austerity measure, but a half-baked attempt to address the perennial issues of disincentives to work, saving and domestic stability that were built into the 1601 law and have resurfaced in every recession and fiscal crisis ever since.

But as an opportunity the crisis goes deeper than this. Since the share of GNP going to capital has risen to around 50 per cent, and median earnings have failed to rise for decades, it is time to recognise that the future of income security cannot lie in the old Labourist principle. The idea of ‘full employment’ no longer makes sense when so many work part-time or are self-employed. We need the security of a citizen’s income to facilitate creativity and flexibility, not policies that try to put us back in that box.

Women never did get such a good deal from Labourism. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for women to campaign for a citizen’s income, and for feminists to make alliances with other movements for its implementation. There were campaigns in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and many intellectuals then favoured it over Beveridge’s social insurance scheme. That has had a 70-year trial and, like every other reform of the tax-benefit system since 1601, it has failed to meet the challenges of economic and social development. It is time to try something new.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue


159