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From 'cashless welfare' to basic income: An economic revolution

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PM Scott Morrison is a big advocate of the cashless debit card (screenshot via YouTube).

Rather than introducing the cashless debit card, we should seriously consider the merits of universal basic income, writes Jane Goodall.

"THIS ISN'T WELFARE," Prime Minister Scott Morrison assured drought-stricken farmers on his recent visit to Dalby. "You work hard." So does Kerryn Griffis, a mother with four young children interviewed on ABC’s 7.30 last Tuesday, in a report on the trial of the cashless debit card in Bundaberg.

She said:

"I feel like in the Government’s eyes, I’m a lesser person. In the public’s eyes it’s much, much worse."

She spoke of the humiliation of having the card refused when she tried to purchase a pair of jeans. Faye Whiffin from the Burrum District Community Centre, a member of the reference group set up by the Social Security Department to monitor the trial, had no problem with that.

Whiffin told the program:

"Well for a start I’ve got to say this is the taxpayer’s money and the taxpayers have a right to know where the money is going."

For a start, this response presumes that the only rights at issue here are those of "the taxpayer", as the legitimate citizen of the economy. In this frame of understanding, those on welfare are indeed lesser persons, and since the card is designed to prevent expenditure on drugs, alcohol or gambling, it effectively identifies them as suspected addicts.

The Bundaberg and Hervey Bay trial covers some 6,000 welfare recipients. It is restricted to those under the age of 36, a demographic that includes a high proportion of people on the single parent’s allowance. The work they do as carers of their children does not count as "work" in our current political economy, as it does not generate a monetary profit for anyone. And so they find themselves on the wrong side of what another interviewee on the program called "financial apartheid".

"Welfare is not a career choice," as Whiffin stated. Again, there was an edge of reprimand in the comment, and again, there is a presumption that might be turned back on those who make it. "Choice" is a favourite word in the neoliberal vocabulary, but in reality, what are the "choices" for someone on welfare? Those who pass through the doors of Centrelink are generally people for whom all options have run out.

Get a job or else is essentially the Government message, but what jobs are these? Do they pay enough to cover the rent? What chance does the "job seeker' have of being offered employment at all? We are in an economy that throws people out – declares them "unemployable" simply because they have been unemployed. It’s a vicious circle, in which the work of applying for unattainable jobs, responding to Robodebt claims or renegotiating arbitrarily stopped payments becomes a job in itself.

7.30 was careful to strike a balance in its account of how the Bundaberg trial was faring, but the assumptions underlying the whole idea of cashless welfare need to be balanced with a much larger and more challenging framework of thought.

Against the whole pejorative, punitive culture of "welfare," cashless or otherwise, let us set the model of the "Freedom Dividend" being proposed by U.S. politician Andrew Yang in his run for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

On Yang’s campaign website, the "Freedom Dividend" is defined as:

‘A universal basic income (UBI) for all American adults, no strings attached – a foundation on which a stable, prosperous, and just society can be built.’

The scheme would be introduced as a $1,000 per month payment to every U.S. citizen, with no conditions or qualifying terms. And the principle behind it is one of entitlement. Yes, hang on to your hats, neoliberals. This could be the end of the world as you know it.

Though, actually, UBI is an idea that has been floated from both sides of politics. President Nixon was on the verge of introducing it in 1969. Essentially, free marketeers like the idea of basic income because it would enable them to abolish welfare programs, sweeping away all the administrative structures and costs attached to them.

What they don’t like is the prospect of a labour market freed from the pressures of urgent human need. What if people started to think they didn’t have to work? Well, what if you had to think a bit harder than that about the whole idea?

Yang runs the "Freedom Dividend" argument with an accompanying campaign slogan: "Make America Think Harder" (MATH). At the core of the new UBI movement is a radical and sweeping revision of our whole way of thinking about human economies. The free market principle is replaced by the commons principle. And the commons principle is that all of us are born with rights in the earth. The planet itself is our budget bottom line, so care of natural resources and participation in community work are the only true imperatives.

In a powerful documentary released last month by the International Press Agency Pressenza, Co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network Philippe van Parijs put it this way:

"We are all owners of the land."

A centuries old tradition of communal land management giving shared access to the natural resources of rivers, forests and fields has been lost. It must be replaced by a financial dividend that is every citizens' right. It should be both universal and unconditional.

In this framework of understanding, the primary economic duty of the citizen is not to an employer who wants to use their labour for profit, but to their fellow citizens, and to the land and eco-systems on which we all depend. Scott Santens, a leading UBI advocate who is now working with the Yang campaign, challenges us to get out of a way of ‘thinking about work as work you do in exchange for money'. Or to make a profit for someone else.

Fundamentally, the work offered in "the job market" is not as necessary as the work we owe to each other as fellow citizens. Such work is also the foundation of social trust. The saddest – and most offensive – thing about the 7.30 report from Bundaberg was its exposure of how the welfare approach destroys trust in a community.

In the Pressenza documentary, this point is emphasised by Ping Xu, founder of UBI Taiwan. "We assume people are untrustworthy," she says. "So the welfare structure does not bring out the best in human beings."

What if 7.30 had invited Ping Xu to respond to Faye Whiffin? One thing’s for sure: we’d all be thinking harder. And in larger, more inspiring ways. As Guy Standing, co-president of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), declares, "You don’t give up when you’re on that journey".

Jane Goodall's latest book is 'The Politics of the Common Good.' She writes regularly for Inside Story. 

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