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THE IDEA of a basic income for every person has been popping up regularly in recent years.
Economists, think tanks, activists and politicians from different stripes have toyed with the idea of governments giving every citizen or resident a minimum income off which to live. This cash transfer could either replace or supplement existing welfare payments.
Pilot projects and feasibility studies have been run or are under way in the Netherlands, India, Canada, Finland, France and elsewhere. Even in the US, the idea finds support. Alaska, for example, already divides its oil revenues among its residents.
Most arguments in favour or against basic income have focused on its simplicity, promotion of personal independence or reaching those who fall through the cracks of the welfare state.
However, the most important advantage of basic income may not be in its practical application but rather in how it could change the way we think and talk about poverty and inequality. Benefits of a basic income Giving every resident an unconditional grant, whether you are a billionaire or destitute, is a significant departure from our existing welfare state. The latter offers only limited support when working is not an option.
Pilot projects suggest that simply giving money to the poor could successfully tackle poverty. In Namibia, poverty, crime and unemployment went down, as school attendance went up. In India, basic income recipients were more likely to start small businesses.
Discussing inequality, we usually focus on employment and production. Yet, much of the world s population has no realistic prospects of employment, and we already produce more than what is sustainable. Basic income, however, separates survival from employment or production.
Our current answers to poverty and inequality centre on wage labour: get more people into jobs, protect them in the workplace, pay better wages and use taxes on wages to fund a limited system of social security and welfare.
Politicians across the spectrum agree. Is there a politician who does not promise more jobs?
In my own research on labour in Africa, however, I have found that wage labour is only a small part of a larger picture. In most of the Global South, whole generations are growing up without realistic prospects for employment. We cannot develop the world solely by getting people into jobs, urging them to start small businesses or teaching them how to farm (as if they didn t already know). The painful reality is that most people s labour is no longer needed by increasingly efficient global chains of production.
A large portion of the world s population have no land, no resources and no one to whom they can sell their labour.
To believe that jobs or economic growth is going to address this crisis of global poverty seems naive.
The example of South Africa is telling. In a comparatively rich country where youth unemployment runs at more than 60%, pensions, childcare and disability grants are for many households the most important source of income. Yet, as a healthy adult male, you stand little chance of either receiving a state benefit or finding decent employment, as economic growth has been largely jobless. For an adult without children, disability is the only access to these crucial grants.
In the early 2000s, a movement emerged in support of a very modest Basic Income Grant (BIG) of R100 per month. Significantly, this campaign received the support of the governmentappointed Taylor Committee. Its report concluded that a BIG would lift as many as six million people out of poverty. However, the proposal was dismissed by the ANC, which continued to see employment as the only solution to poverty and inequality.
Not surprisingly, basic income campaigns have been prominent in countries with high socioeconomic inequality, like SA.
As the Club of Rome already realised in 1972, the bias of our usual answers to inequality grow more, produce more and grow the economy so that people can consume more is ultimately unsustainable. In a world already characterised by overproduction and overconsumption, producing and consuming more cannot be the answer. Yet, these seem to be the answers with which we are stuck: grow, grow, grow.
We may need to think about distribution rather than production, a point argued by anthro- pologist James Ferguson. For him, giving a man a fish might be more useful than teaching him to fish.
The problem of global inequality is not that we do not produce enough to provide for the world s population. It is about the distribution of resources. This is why the idea of a basic income is so important: it discards the assumption that to get the income you need to survive, you should be employed or at least engaged in productive labour. Assumptions of this kind are untenable when for so many there are no realistic prospects for employment.
There are many potential problems to basic income. Countries whose populations would need it most might be least able to afford it. And, small basic income grants may actually further impoverish the poorest if it replaces other grants.
Moreover, if people get money merely because they are citizens or residents of a country these claims become very susceptible to nationalist and xenophobic exclusion. In episodes of xenophobic violence in SA, many accused foreigners of receiving welfare grants and public housing that should go to South Africans.
Despite these problems, it is important to start experimenting with alternatives.
Callebert is adjunct professor of history, Virginia Tech, US. Source: http://theconversation.com/