Let Covid give birth to a basic income grant
It seems a lifetime ago that global public policy debates around the implementation of a universal basic income (UBI) were focused primarily on concerns about the impending mechanisation of “unskilled” or low-skilled jobs in the labour market.
Discussions about what has come to be known as “the future of work” also revolved around the existential threat posed by rapid developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which could conceivably lead to professional jobs in areas such as investment and asset management or big data analysis being automated in the near future.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has fundamentally shifted this debate to a focus on the raft of more immediate consequences of nationwide lockdowns precipitated by the advent of this once-in-a-generation health crisis.
Today, as we consider and design policies for the future of work, we must consider, among other things, the regressive impact of home schooling on economic equality for women who have been disproportionately forced to leave the workplace in order to take on unpaid domestic responsibilities at home.
There are also deeper questions about the role of the state in supporting workers whose sectors in the economy have been devastated by the pandemic and its multiple attendant lockdowns.
In response to these challenges, a coalition of 86 civil society groups and 180 organisations and individuals in SA have come together under the banner of #PayTheGrants rightly and justly to call for the reinstatement of the R350 monthly Covid-19 social relief of distress (SRD) grant, pending its conversion into a conditional or UBI grant using legislative and regulatory interventions.
The national government’s decision at the end of April to terminate the provision of the SRD grant for the unemployed is perilously premature, and risks deepening the social and humanitarian crisis among our country’s unemployed as well as those who have lost their jobs as a consequence of the economic crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Stats SA reported a 1.7-percentage-point increase in unemployment in the fourth quarter of 2020, placing broad-definition unemployment at 32.5%, or 7.2-million people, and rising to 11.1million if we include discouraged work-seekers.
This is as potent a signal as any that the economic shocks of the pandemic are far from over.
In addition, according to Waves 1 and 2 of the National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) — a rapid assessment mobile phone survey conducted by the universities of Stellenbosch and the Witwatersrand to track the economic impact of the hard lockdowns between March and October 2020 — the brunt of job losses and unemployment as the pandemic wears on have been felt by women.
Women experienced significantly higher job losses in both absolute and relative terms during the level 5 and level 3 lockdowns, and women’s progress towards reaching pre-Covid employment levels as SA moved to level 1 has remained stubbornly behind that of men in the labour market.
We successfully managed to dodge another hard lockdown over the Easter holiday period this year, but the devastating resurgence of Covid-19 infections and deaths in India in recent weeks should be a signal to governments around the world — including ours — not to be tempted by complacency but rather to remain alive to the possibility of a third wave of infections.
It might have been tempting in the past to look at the issues of a UBI or a basic income grant for the unemployed through an ideological lens, but Covid-19 has shown us that governments everywhere have a moral obligation to create a social safety net that will protect and support their people through unprecedented socioeconomic shocks.
I am in favour of a universal and unconditional approach to the basic income grant — one that eliminates the need for means testing, and is available to every adult South African, regardless of their economic status.
As long as such a policy is accompanied by economic reforms and an aggressive approach to job creation, making the grant available to all has the potential to build the social solidarity and broad support necessary to make it sustainable in the long term.
The year-long implementation of the Covid-19 SRD grant constitutes a natural pilot programme whose data now needs urgently to be reviewed in order to help answer a series of critical questions about a basic income grant in SA.
What are the optimal conditions necessary to ensure that the fiscus can support such a policy?
Which areas of the formal and informal economy would benefit from the additional spending brought about by a basic income grant?
And what impact will it have on the daily lived experience of all South Africans — especially the most vulnerable members of our society?
These are the questions with which both parliament and the national government should urgently be seized as we consider how the tragedy and devastation of the coronavirus pandemic might be harnessed to bring about critical improvements in social protection and sustainably improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country.