Universal Basic Income and COVID-19

This pandemic is changing society, let’s think about shaping that change

For many across the globe this pandemic has changed the way life is lived in a myriad of ways. While many others are looking on and wondering when it will be their turn.

One recurring thought we may have is this: “I hope that life will return to normal soon”. However, it may be that this hope is only realised three, six or even twelve months from now. But, what will “normal” look like when the pandemic is over? Apart from some aspects of our life not being the same as today, many industry sectors will still be facing difficulties.

The most recent and relevant lesson is found in the financial calamity of 2008 and its aftermath. Some say that even 10 years after the event, many economies around the world still had not returned to what they were prior to the disaster. With this in mind, let’s use a thought experiment by applying this most recent lesson to what is happening right now. Suppose that the pandemic is behind us by the middle of 2021. Can we assume that life will return to “normal” by the middle of following year? Do we expect to see and experience how things were in 2019, by 2023? That is, a return to the familiar routines and rhythms of life just a couple of years after a potential defeat of this particular virus?

As a futurist, one of the tools in my toolbox is to help people discuss the different ways the future may unfold. So, here is a question to consider: can we use this time now to imagine an improved way to run the economy? Could we perhaps use this current period of restriction and uncertainty to consider ways of enhancing how we run the affairs of business, of careers, of welfare?

Is Universal Basic Income an idea whose time has come?

Much studied, discussed and experimented with, Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a regular living wage paid directly to citizens. This government guaranteed income is sufficient to cover basic living expenses such as food, accommodation and health. In its purest form, all people regardless of socio-economic status receive it and it replaces social welfare payments.

Self-evidently, arguments can be mounted to dissuade us from its introduction. But what is possible? Let us reflect on some of the positives, and how UBI can be paid for.

Regarding the positives, one obvious example is the benefit to those who have fallen on hard times, or for those who live at the lower end of society. UBI provides a floor, a liveable safety net, a tangible promise that support is available when its needed most. Another benefit is for those going through the agonies of divorce or domestic violence. UBI provides a means of escape and of establishing a haven of safety. A third advantage is from a career perspective. Consider someone who wants to leave a job and either start a business, or enroll in a course of education, or even have a break before they pursue a new career. With UBI as a support for these people, imagine the benefits we would reap as a society. Innovation and entrepreneurship would be unleashed, our workforce would be better trained, and employees would stay in jobs that are suitable for them.

Now for the other side of the equation. Where would the money come from? With reference to the trials and studies that several countries have run over the last few decades, there is a level of experience and knowledge that can be drawn on to answer this question. In essence, UBI could be paid for a number of ways. Taxes on resources and financial transactions, and the consolidation of welfare programs are but three sources of finance for this initiative.

One final thought. Step back and look what governments around the world are doing to help their citizens through this coronavirus crisis. The UK is gifting people a regular income, the Italians are paying utility bills, and South Korea is subsidizing wages. While there are other types of support currently being delivered, each of these governments have found the finance to directly support their people.

So, once this turmoil is over, imagine if the will was there to continue this financial support. Whilst we are in this period of uncertainty let us begin to have conversations about introducing Universal Basic Income. Why can’t we reframe the months ahead as a time of transition? For reshaping how our society functions is the opportunity that awaits.


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