Tuesday, 19 April 2016
Is the Citizens Income idea becoming Mainstream?
In my youth, back in the 1970s, it was a common assumption that people in advanced economies would work much reduced hours in the future. It was said that this would lead to an expansion of leisure time, which in turn would lead to more jobs in the leisure industries.
There was the feeling around that traditional jobs would be reduced by technological developments, and that this would lead to what was left job wise, being shared around by the workforce. The creation of these extra leisure type jobs would then additionally take up some of the slack left by reduction in traditional jobs. Indeed, it was moving a little in that direction in the 1970s, with working hours reducing alongside a fall in jobs in heavy industry in the UK.
Sadly, the less hours scenario was reversed in the 1980s, by the Thatcher Conservative government’s decimation of British industry with those now surplus workers left to languish on unemployment benefit, which to be fair, in those days, was not subject to the condition of ‘actively seeking work.’ Unemployment benefit was too low (although, allowing for inflation higher than today) for people to live on, but a black market of ‘off the cards’ working developed, at least in the south east of England where there was some work to be had.
Jobs in services, which includes leisure activities, also grew during the 1980s and the number of women in the workforce increased quite dramatically to largely fill these service jobs, but working hours increased for many in these new jobs, which were usually low paid and uninspiring.
I first came across the idea of a Citizens Income (CI), or Social Wage as it was then referred to, in the early 1980s, and found that it was proposed from the 1970s onward by the Ecology Party, the forerunner of the Green Party. Although I later discovered that it was a much older idea, with Tom Paine, amongst others advocating it as far back as the late eighteenth century.
Last week, John Harris, wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian newspaper, on the rise in popularity of the Citizens Income. Harris points out that the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) spring conference last month passed a motion supporting the idea of CI and that 23 of the SNPs MPs, along with a few Labour and Northern Ireland’s SDLP MPs voted in favour of the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas’ early day motion in Parliament on the issue.
The Green Party of course campaigned, to an extent, on CI in last year’s general election (it wasn’t in the manifesto but is a long standing policy aim for the party), which aroused a fair bit of (critical) media comment.
The usual sort of thing that is said against CI, is that it encourages ‘work-shy scroungers’ and a ‘something for nothing society’ was repeated during in the election, along with some spurious calculations on the likely very high cost of the scheme. The Greens duly retreated behind the line that this was only a long term aim.
There are potentially huge cost savings in CI, as it a very easy and cheap to administer, saving on means tested benefits, which would largely be unnecessary under an automatic CI system, and I think the Green Party should be more ambitious about the level of CI (£72 per week was the recommended figure by the Greens at the election). It really should be at least double this amount to have real value, I think.
This would give some basis for financial security in an economy that produces more and more temporary and zero hours jobs, as well as allowing for caring and other unpaid work to be undertaken.
Reduced working hours also appears to make us more productive. An Australian study of people over 40 by Melbourne University, reported by the BBC, found that a part-time job keeps the brain stimulated, while avoiding exhaustion and stress, and increases productivity. Those taking part were asked to read words aloud, to recite lists of numbers backwards and to match letters and numbers under time pressure. In general terms, those participants who worked about 25 hours a week tended to achieve the best scores.
I’ll leave the final word on this to Caroline Lucas, as quoted in John Harris’ Guardian piece:
“This idea works on so many levels,” she says. “It’s a very practical policy, in terms of ensuring that people don’t fall between the cracks of the welfare system. But it’s also a deeply radical idea in terms of its feminist potential, and what we do in a world in which more and more work is going to be automated. It also gets you into a sense of contributing to your community, cleaning up the beach, visiting an elderly friend who might be lonely. There’s a whole freedom and liberation that it gives you, and I think it takes you into really deep questions about whether we really exist simply to spend a third of our lives working for someone else.”