Living by bread alone: economic growth and the citizen's income

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
7 Feb 2014

Economic growth is the holy grail of politicians. By its success or failure, its magnitude and its speed, are their own electoral prospects measured. The government claims the economy is growing again; the opposition laments the failure of this to be translated into rising living standards for the poor, the vulnerable and the 'squeezed middle'. Only the Green Party raises any questions as to the received wisdom that growth is good for us all, everywhere, at all times. We have, they remind us, only one planet to share.

Growing populations demand increasing resources if their lives are to be sustained. This in turn, demands discernment as to how this is to be managed for the well-being of all and the crushing of none. For too long, the generation of resources has been seen as a far greater priority than has their distribution and use. To shift this balance towards justice, sustainability and the securing of fulfilling lives will require far more radical thinking than is at present displayed by politicians, industrialists and economists.

We have a heavy load to push past its point of inertia. Until the economic crisis of 2008 and the consequent austerity programmes, post-war generations assumed that they and their children would experience an unimpeded journey through ever-rising levels of prosperity. So deeply entrenched is this expectation that questioning it is not only uncomfortable for a great many people, it also provides fertile ground for those who are eager to seize upon it as an opportunity to reinforce the desirability of the status quo.

This condition depends to a considerable extent on an over-simplified concept that the quality of people's lives, as measured by consumer indices, will always reward the industrious and that poverty is therefore morally culpable. The nature of work is narrowly interpreted – for example it excludes carers and poets equally despite the fact that a moment's reflection shows us that we would have a greatly impoverished society without these callings. The utilitarian approach to education espoused by Michael Gove and the deliberately divisive language used by David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith, reinforce this binary and brutish simplification – “hard-working families”, “scroungers”, “people with their curtains drawn”. There is nothing here to encourage us towards reflection and discussion of the widely diverse and enriching forms of work and service which are less obviously close-coupled to our GDP.

The most widely understood means by which society could be helped towards the greater equality which would enhance both the common good and individual fulfilment, are a living wage and redistributive taxation. The work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, set out in their book 'The Spirit Level', has placed beyond doubt the fact that unequal societies have a higher degree of sickness, crime and family dysfunction. Where there is little shared experience, the cohesion of society is gravely weakened. Physical and mental health is undermined and relationships are placed under immense strain if people have insufficient money to maintain modest security and partake in the activities which enable us to have a common lived experience.

Closing tax loopholes, taxing the wealthiest at a just rate, implementing a financial transaction tax and scrapping the obsolete vanity project that is Trident would all play a significant part in financing a creative and liberating approach to sharing our national wealth. None of these ideas are popular with those who are trapped in conventional thinking or who have a vested interest in supporting it.

But possibly the most powerful tool for subverting unexamined thinking on income, security, creativity and quality of life, is the citizen's income, also known as the guaranteed or basic income. This is a salary which the state pays to every adult citizen. It is set at a level sufficient to sustain a modest standard of living but prescribes no activity in return.

A guaranteed income which would replace most benefits and means testing and would end coercive schemes such as Workfare, could be paid paid for by scrapping or reducing the personal income tax allowance. When we consider how much we lose, both in pragmatic and ethical terms, by trapping people in the strain of long hours and inadequately paid work, it begins to make good sense.

Sickness, anger, despair and frustration cost the taxpayer a great deal of money. When the citizen's income was trialled in the Canadian town of Dauphin, Manitoba during the 1970s, it reduced overall poverty and the benefits required to ameliorate that need. It also brought about an 8.5 per cent reduction in hospital admissions. Fewer people were treated for work-related injuries and the number of emergencies arising from car accidents and domestic abuse fell. There were also far fewer mental health visits.

In 2009, Evelyn Forget, professor of health sciences at Manitoba University, undertook an analysis of data from the trial which the government had previously refused to release. She calculated that an 8.5 per cent decrease in hospital visits across Canada would save the government $4 billion per year in today's figures.“When you walk around a hospital, it's pretty clear that a lot of the time what we're treating are the consequences of poverty,” she said.

Most people would want to earn more than the minimum income and would be willing work for it. Job-sharing and part time work could therefore become economically viable choices. The safety net provided would shift balance of power between employer and employee away from any tendency to exploitation by making it easier for workers to challenge unfair conditions. The removal of necessity would free people to volunteer, be carers, pursue study or training, to reflect and to discover new challenges that could benefit themselves and society.

Not all that is of value can be measured on a spread-sheet. The work of carers and the stay-at-home mothers of young children are obvious examples. Worth is not directly proportional to possessions or status. Material success should not be valued more than working with integrity and exercising creativity. To have time for family, friends and recreation at the end of a working day should not be thought of as less important than ambition or entrepreneurial flair. We need people who are willing to work to innovate and create jobs, but we must not let ourselves be drawn into the illusion that this is the only way or that those for whom the quality of a life is at least as important as its material quantity, are in some way inferior.

Jesus reminds us that we do not live by bread alone. The words are a call to balance and to the consideration of priorities and possibilities. To share out the wealth of our society amongst all our people will reduce conflict and suffering. Lives will be enriched across all income levels if we can learn to step aside from received opinion and embrace a wider and more generous model of the relationship between means and need, consumption and restraint, necessary growth and blind, unexamined increase. We must challenge those who would have us believe that the poor do not deserve to have money. To fail in this is to encompass the eventual ruin of rich and poor alike.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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