The implementation of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has the potential to change Irish society, and the lives of Irish people for the better. UBI is defined as a universal, unconditional, periodic cash transfer, with the payments set at a level high enough to ensure an individual can live a life of dignity.
To understand what is special about UBI it can be helpful to think of it as an alternative to the typical means-tested social welfare systems observed in Ireland. Although, one should keep in mind that typical social welfare style measures could theoretically supplement UBI in a society that chooses to go down that route. The key factor is that UBI comes first, ensuring a dignified income for all before the standard welfare measures could kick in.
Under a typical social welfare system, individuals are subjected to intrusive means-tests in order to secure income. The arbitrary nature of these means-tests and the regimented structure they assume means that individuals’ unique circumstances cannot be taken into account. Such bureaucracies are rigid and impassionate, and that’s the only way they can function. The bureaucrats look at the eligibility criteria, look at the information in front of them, and if the latter doesn’t satisfy the former, then, as far as they’re concerned, the claimant is out of luck.
Many students will be only too familiar with this notion in the labyrinth of SUSI, and the stress involved in answering hundreds of questions ranging from your mother’s maiden name to your father’s finance lease payments. While SUSI is not part of the social welfare system per se, the arbitrariness of such systems is neatly captured by how much of a difference your family home being 46km vs. 43km from your college makes to your grant income. The answer is between €450 and €3540, in case you were wondering.
UBI bypasses such issues. It is not a question of who is eligible for UBI, because every citizen is. It doesn’t matter whether an individual’s spouse or partner is working, whether an individual inherited a family home in the past year, or any other condition which can be grounds for disqualification in a means-test. The UBI payment is universal and guaranteed, regardless of one’s individual circumstances.
The why of eligibility is also remedied by UBI. Although this was already hinted at above when discussing means tests, i.e. you get a social welfare payment because you’re poor, there are myriad welfare payments that are specifically targeted to certain groups who are viewed as being in extra need. While offering individuals more robust benefits based on greater need is admirable, these payments come with more stringent eligibility criteria. People with disabilities must prove they live with a serious medical condition in order to receive disability allowance, and are subject to random and routine checks to ensure they remain sufficiently disabled to receive such welfare payments and that they continue to satisfy the means-test.
Single parents receiving targeted welfare payments are also subject to routine checks on their cohabitation status and their means. The Irish Examiner highlighted this last year, saying that “single mothers on welfare feel ‘bullied’ by inspectors”, with some claimants stating that “they were told that if they entered a relationship they would lose the payment”, and that “inspectors would visit their homes unannounced, opening wardrobes looking for men’s clothes, and questioning them about cars parked outside.”
This kind of intrusion is unconscionable. These claimants are often vulnerable and are, by the very design of the social welfare system, at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. These people deserve a helping hand, not a wooden spoon.
It is time for Ireland to have a real conversation about UBI and the kind of social safety net we want to have. Do we want a baseline level of redistribution to ensure all can live in dignity, or do we want to continue with an intrusive, bloated bureaucracy that subjects the worst off to indignity and unequal treatment by its very design? That’s the kind of question we’ll have to grapple with when making such a decision.