Back to basics

Barb Jacobson on the campaign for an unconditional basic income

October 28, 2016 · 4 min read

money treeI started organising for a basic income during the European Citizens Initiative (ECI) for unconditional basic income in 2013. From my background with Wages for Housework in the 1980s, local organising around housing and healthcare in the 1990s and 2000s, to say nothing of my current paid work as a welfare rights advisor, it seemed like an obvious demand to put forward. Women (and increasingly men) still struggle with impoverishment and to have our unpaid work as carers recognised as crucial to the functioning of society. The benefits system is turning into a virtual workhouse. Cuts to services and increasing conditionality have been going on relentlessly for over 30 years. It was time to go on the offensive with something new.

When the ECI finished in January 2014, we had collected nearly 300,000 signatures across 27 countries. While we didn’t make the million required to get an audience with the European Commission, we did better than any other initiative proposed without the backing of a large NGO. More importantly, we had a network of people across Europe who wanted to continue working together. In February 2014 we decided to carry on as Unconditional Basic Income Europe (UBIE).

We build on the work of the older Basic Income Earth Network which has been keeping the idea of basic income alive for the past 30 years. What was missing, however, was a sense of urgency. Basic income is an urgent need felt by young people especially – for income security, for the capacity to use talents and education largely wasted by the job market, to have the freedom to create a better world, to come up with solutions to problems that neither the state nor the market can fix. If the Swiss basic income referendum last June had been restricted to people under 35, it would have been won with 54 per cent of the vote.

UBIE gives us a place to share information and strategies in our individual countries and a transnational organisation that can have an impact on the EU and its policies. Two major projects are looking at the idea of a ‘EuroDividend’ to win some income redistribution from richer countries to poorer ones, and pilot studies in different areas of the EU, where several localities have expressed an interest in testing basic income. It has become apparent that EU subsidies are not reaching the people who most need them, nor in a way that truly builds their capacity in social or economic terms.

If the Brexit vote taught us nothing else, it is that whatever rights the EU guarantees, many in the lowest-paid jobs and in rural areas of the UK do not feel these rights belong to them. It costs money to enforce these rights, and without union or other institutional backup, this is impossible for most.

Largely missing from the discussion about the effects of migration on the UK was the effects of the parallel impact of depopulation in the countries migrants come from. Bulgaria will lose 50 per cent of its population by 2020, and Latvia 40 per cent – often their most skilled and energetic young people. The money they send back cannot make up for the loss of their skills and creativity – also largely wasted in the jobs they can get here.

From citizens’ point of view, the right to freedom of movement needs to be twinned with the financial wherewithal to stay put, and flexible working needs to be twinned with income security. Both could be guaranteed by basic income policies at the EU and national levels.

Instead, European officials have been doubling-down on restrictive economic policies in the countries hardest hit by the crisis. This directly fuels movements to leave the EU in many European countries. These movements play on racism, while the real problems are financial insecurity and the wars outside Europe supported by our governments. Since there is always enough money for war, why not for a basic income?

Throughout the EU we need an economy that works for people. We need more democratic structures so that people have more control over policies that affect them. Otherwise Europe risks becoming a gated community for old white people, while the poorest people from the rest of the world are forced to change their bedpans.

Barb Jacobson is chair of Unconditional Basic Income Europe.

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