Colin C. Williams and Sara Nadin – Beyond the market: The case for a citizen’s income
For well over a century, there has been a persistent call for a citizen’s income. Alternatively known as a basic income, social wage, social dividend, social credit, guaranteed income, citizen’s wage, citizenship income, existence income or universal grant, this would provide every citizen with a basic ‘wage’ as a social entitlement without means test or work requirement. Eligibility would be automatic for all citizens and unconditional. There would be no tests of willingness to work.
With this minimum income guarantee in hand, individuals could then choose to improve their well-being by engaging in employment so as to earn additional money in order to purchase goods and services, or they could instead choose to invest their time in self-provisioning of those goods and services, or helping others. This would then give individuals and groups increased resources for taking charge of their own lives, further power over their way of life and living conditions. If implemented, that is, it would be no longer solely be the labour market that integrated people into society but also this scheme that would potentially offer limited material security, esteem and identity.
For those who recognise alternative ways of securing a livelihood beyond a formal job, citizen’s income offers a means of not only recognising but also rewarding citizens for engaging in activities such as caring for young children, volunteering, community engagement and self-provisioning of goods and services.
Citizen’s income: origins and debates
What are the origins of this proposal? The idea of providing a citizen’s income can be traced to Tom Paine, Saint-Simon, Bertrand and Dora Russell, and Major CH Douglas amongst others (Van Trier, 1995). More recently, it has been advocated by a wide range of economists (e.g., Atkinson, 1995, 1998; Desai, 1998), political philosophers (Van Parijs, 1995, 2000a,b) and social policy commentators (Jordan, 1998) of all political persuasions. Among the main advantages claimed for such a basic income scheme are:
- It is neutral between paid and unpaid work, giving better incentives for low-paid employment than tax credits, but allowing choice over how to combine the two;
- It treats men and women as equals, allowing them to negotiate how to share unpaid work in households;
- It combats exploitation, by allowing individuals to survive without relying on dangerous or demeaning work;
- It promotes economic efficiency, by ensuring that low-paid work is not given a special subsidy (as in tax credits) and hence labour power is not wastefully deployed, and
- It promotes social justice, by treating all individuals alike, and giving extra income only to those with special care needs.
Even amongst advocates of a basic income, however, it is perhaps now accepted that a fully individualised and unconditional basic income could not be introduced in one operation, not least because it would upset the current distribution of incomes and labour supply. Instead, and particularly for the working age population, the growing consensus seems to be that one should not proceed by cohorts or by categories, but start with a very modest (partial) basic income that would not be a full substitute for existing guaranteed minimum income provisions (Desai, 1998; Jordan et al, 2000; Parker and Sutherland, 1998).
Whatever the costs of a basic income scheme, this solution, although necessary, is perhaps by itself insufficient if the desire is to help people to pursue a more diverse range of strategies to secure their livelihood beyond simply entering formal jobs. To enable this to happen, such a citizen’s income scheme needs to be coupled with initiatives to facilitate participation in other forms of work. As Gough (2000: 27) argues,
‘It is not enough to pay citizens a minimum income without enabling them to participate in socially significant activities, including paid and unpaid work… All persons who can, should have the right – and the duty – to contribute in some way to the common wealth.’
Lipietz (1992: 99) similarly argues that a universal basic allowance ‘would be acceptable only if it meant that those who received it were prepared to show their solidarity with society, which is paying them’. The crucial issue confronting citizen’s income, to borrow a well worn phrase, is that ‘there are no rights without responsibilities’. Elson (1988: 29) puts this well,
‘Alongside the right to a grant should be the duty, on the part of able-bodied adults, of undertaking some unpaid household work of caring and providing for those who are unable to take care of themselves. Persons already undertaking care of a young or sick or handicapped person would be exempt.’
There is thus a groundswell of opinion that a citizen’s income needs to be tied to some form of active citizenship. Atkinson (1998), for example, argues for a ‘participation income’ and Lipietz (1995) for a new sector engaged in socially useful activity and comprised of 10 per cent of the labour force (the unemployment rate at the time he was writing). The idea, therefore, is to tie a basic income scheme to some form of participation in society. Advocates of an unconditional basic income, however, argue against such an approach (e.g., Gorz, 1999; Jordan, 1998; Jordan and Jordan, 2000). For them, the result will be new forms of compulsion akin to workfare such as compulsory work in the third sector (e.g., Elson, 1988; Offe, 1995; Rifkin, 1996).
This, however, does not necessarily follow. It is wholly possible to create what have been variously called ‘passports to participation’, ‘participation incomes’ or forms of ‘community service employment’ (Williams and Windebank, 2003) that provide basic incomes for active citizenship in a way that avoids compulsion.
Active community service
At the core of most models for security, esteem and identity is the notion of the ‘working citizen’. For those advocating a citizen’s income based on participation, however, what is meant by ‘work’ is broadened to incorporate the forms of work beyond employment – such as self-provisioning, unpaid community work, and volunteering. At present, in contrast, a model dominates that views the ‘working citizen’ as somebody participating in formal employment. In this view, everything is linked to a paid job, including citizenship itself, as manifested by the lack of distinction drawn between citizens’ rights and workers’ rights.
For advocates of an active citizen’s income, however, and based upon a broader definition of work that encompasses informal work, the desire is to promote an alternative model for security, esteem and identity. From this perspective, the ‘working citizen’ is integrated not only through formal but also informal work. To see how this new model of the ‘working citizen’ might operate, we consider two possible policy options below. The first seeks to extend the ‘voluntary and community sector’ of the New Deal programme which has been adopted in many western nations, so as to promote integration through active citizenship (rather than formal employment alone); and the second seeks to introduce active citizens’ tax credits, again being widely implemented throughout the western world.
Civil-ising New Deal
Following the lead of the USA, many western economies have in recent decades started to implement workfare-type regimes, as part of a general reorientation of labour market intervention towards active labour market policies. These workfare programmes represent a significant departure from traditional welfare systems. People are required to work in return for social assistance payments. In stark contrast to previous welfare and unemployment benefit programmes in which state support was passive, unconditional and entitlement based, these new workfare regimes are conditional, work-focused, and oblige participants to be active in order to receive social payments (Campbell, 2000; Robinson, 1998). The principal critique of them is that there is a compulsion element, whereby people are forced to do work that they would not otherwise wish to conduct (e.g., Peck, 2001).
The intention here is to consider a modification to New Deal that would reduce the compulsion critiques that currently blight it, and at the same time unleash the unemployed from the shackles that prevent them from engaging in economic practices that they might wish to undertake. The proposal is that the ‘voluntary and community’ sector of the New Deal programme could be extended to allowing the unemployed to define the ‘social and/or economic contribution’ that they wish to make. This would not only negate the workfare critiques aimed at this programme, but also release the unemployed to take greater responsibility for the nature of their integration into work.
The precise scope of work that might be deemed acceptable and the problems involved in deciding on the breadth of such activity are of course problematic, but they would certainly include caring activities and organising community groups. Hence, somebody who was principal carer of a young pre-school child or an elderly dependent person would have this essential work recognised under the ‘community and voluntary sector’ of New Deal, and they would be paid an activity benefit for doing this work. Similarly, those organising and running community groups such as LETS, time banks and credit unions would again receive an activity benefit paid at a higher rate than the zero-activity benefit level, in recognition of their contribution.
An example of a similar initiative is to be found in Australia. Here, there has been some recognition that various activities are socially legitimate for those who are claiming out-of-work benefits. It has been understood, for example, that care work should be accredited. Both lone parents and one parent in a couple can claim a ‘parenting allowance’. This is income-tested on one’s own and one’s partners’ income, and is payable to parents with children aged up to 16 years old (Hirsch, 1999).
Although this policy proposal would start to conquer the workfare critiques associated with active labour market policies such as the New Deals, a key problem that this proposal fails to modify is the meaning of a ‘working citizen’ amongst those who are not eligible for New Deal. The likely outcome is that it would introduce a ‘dual society’. Those eligible to choose the contribution that they wish to make to their communities are only those who are unemployed. The likelihood, therefore, is that the new forms of work undertaken would be seen as a second rate and second class ‘economy’ for those excluded from the formal labour market. This leads us to a more comprehensive proposal for facilitating a multi-activity society, explored below, that is more inclusive in terms of the groups who could be mobilised to renegotiate their contribution to society.
Active Citizens’ Credits (ACC)
The conventional contract between the state and out-of-work households offers income in exchange for a duty to search for employment if one is able. Only a few groups are exempted from this obligation. Engaging in parenting, for example, has not generally been considered acceptable.
Here, however, a scheme is proposed that could not only recognise such work beyond employment, but also reward those individuals who engage in such endeavour – and thus promote a multi-activity society. This scheme is based on the notion of accrediting active citizenship. Drawing upon the ideas for citizens’ service (Briscoe, 1995; Hirsch, 1999; McCormick, 1994) and a participation income (Atkinson, 1998), the intention of ‘active citizens’ credits’ (ACC) is to record, store and reward participation in caring, and other work conducted for the good of their community (Williams, 2007; Williams and Windebank, 2003). Under this non-compulsory scheme, individuals would engage in a self-designed portfolio of work of their choosing, for which they would be reimbursed.
This would be non-compulsory, in that individuals could freely choose whether or not to participate. It would also allow the individuals participating in this scheme to themselves decide the portfolio of economic practices that they want to undertake. The goals behind such a proposal are:
- to recompense and value work which currently goes unrecognised and unvalued;
- to encourage active citizenship without recourse to compulsion;
- to harness informal work;
- to create a ‘full-engagement’ society by enabling people who wish to make a particular ‘social contribution’ to do so;
- to incorporate the multi-dimensionality of social inclusion and exclusion into policy-making, and
- to tackle poverty through means other than merely insertion into the formal work.
The idea that such a scheme should be developed to encourage individuals to engage in freely chosen work to benefit their community is perhaps uncontroversial. The major controversy is over how to reward people. One option is to embed this proposal within the tax credit approach that is emerging in many advanced economies (e.g. Liebman, 1998; Meadows, 1997; Millar and Hole, 1998). Just as there are ‘employment tax credits’, pensioner tax credits, disability and sickness tax credits, there could be ‘active citizens tax credits’ for those participating in caring activities and other work for the good of their community, sub-divided into three further types of tax credit: parents’ tax credits, carers’ tax credits and community worker tax credits (Williams and Windebank (2003) and Williams (2007)).
If adopted, a multi-activity society would be engendered, by recording, storing and rewarding engagement in work beyond employment. The result would be the creation of a society founded upon the principle of multi-activity, without a radical policy overhaul.
Given that the needs of the poor and unemployed are currently being met so inadequately by the conventional job creation model, which seeks to enable everybody to secure their livelihood solely through the formal labour market, it is obvious that new models of social and economic integration are required. Provision of a citizen’s income, therefore, may well be an idea whose time has come. Either way, more debate and discussion are certainly needed on whether this is the case, and on how such an idea might be implemented.
What is beyond doubt, however, is that inclusion through formal employment alone is no longer either feasible or desirable. It is time to open up debate to new approaches. This citizen’s income idea is one important possibility that we hope will be more fully considered.
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