Utopia, Universal Income and ‘Universal Credit’

Utterly dismayed by the state of the world, with ‘Fake News’, Brexit and just the general sense of hatred of ‘the other’, I’ve been trying to prove to myself that life isn’t all that bad.

I was really affected by the book ‘Lost Connections’ and have been following the author’s twitter account since. He recommended Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists and I’ve since started reading it. I’m a few chapters in, and its start – a comparison of past visions of utopian societies and the statistical realities of today’s world, is the sort of thing that makes you look at the world differently.

Bregman’s statistics – that appear well researched – show the amazing progress that has been made in recent history, and encourage me to be grateful for the fact that our conceptions of what we need doesn’t really reflect actual need. Many of us live in utopia already – more than enough to eat, warm homes and time for leisure. We can’t imagine a world where we don’t have those things .

I’m reminded of the sense of disbelief displayed by my children when I described the living conditions I’d seen when re-watching early episodes of Call the Midwife. The very idea that people could live without indoor toilets, heating or even plumbing was horrific to them, yet a 100 years ago most people lived like that. It’s a very real version of counting my blessings.

What feels horrific is the fact that, in a prosperous country, we seem to be taking a step back towards those times. The rise in the use of food banks, the homeless dying on the streets, zero hours contracts, wages that don’t allow people to live without assistance. It’s a depressing picture. I’m not going to even start on the decline of schools and the NHS. My personal experience lately is of the universal credit system.

I’ll admit that I’ve got a complicated application. I was a full-time student, eligible because I’m a single parent. Then I decided to go part time and start a business, meaning the complex self-employment rules now apply. However, including a completely wasted appointment this morning, I’ve already had to visit the job centre 4 times (with another appointment booked for next week). I’ve also had several other interactions, by phone and through my online ‘journal’. The costs of DWP employee time is already racking up, and that’s just one case – and before I’ve received a penny.

Assuming I’m judged to be in ‘Gainful self employment’, I will have to submit accounts every month.  I don’t know what the process is for that yet, but I’m hoping (but not hopeful) that these will calculate my benefit automatically. The rules are horribly complex, and it’s taken me a while to be confident that I’ve done my financial planning using the correct calculations. Whether through computer system, or human input, there will also be a cost to calculating my variable benefits each month.

There are plenty of other crappy things about Universal Credit, but I’m focusing on the costs of administering it. We already know that imposing sanctions and monitoring claimants costs more than the money saved. That’s not including the hidden costs of things like food banks, that pick up the strain when benefits claimants are sanctioned.

I’ve always been a fan of an alternative way : a universal basic income. A concept that Bregman has touted, it involves everyone getting a basic amount from the government – no strings attached. Bregman describes the effect of a universal income as ‘freedom to say no’ to bad situations such as a job where you experience harassment.

Personally, a universal basic income represents freedom to try things – it would make it much easier for me to return to education, or to start the business I’m currently working on. It would have made it much easier to deal with my episodes of poor mental health, knowing I had a safety net that didn’t involve putting me in situations that I was not, at the time, able to handle.

I’m not going to regurgitate the potential benefits of the system – read Bregman’s writing on the subject, he’s much more eloquent. There are a few studies that have been carried out, and the results are fascinating. If I thought the labour party knew where their own arse was, I’d be voting for them on the basis that they’re considering suggesting a pilot of the scheme in their next manifesto. We need more research to convince people that it will work in our time, and our society.

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