Universal Basic Services

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Ben Chapman:

"Instead of attempting to alleviate poverty through redistributive payments and minimum wages, the state should instead provide everyone with the services they need to feel secure in society, the report’s authors argue.

They say UBI is expensive. Paying all UK citizens the current Jobseeker's Allowance amount of £73.10 per week would cost almost £250bn per year - 13 per cent of the UK’s entire GDP.

By contrast, widening the social safety net through more comprehensive services would cost around £42bn, which can be funded by lowering the personal income tax allowance from £11,800 to £4,300, according to the IGP’s analysis.

The experts say an expansion of basic services to everyone is highly progressive because those who rely on them will be disproportionately the least wealthy in society." (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/universal-basic-services-idea-better-basic-income-citizens-social-housing-ucl-a7993476.html)


1. Antony Painter:

"UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity alternative approach to UBI, their proposal is for universal basic services including access to mobile and internet, housing, food, and transport at a cost of 2% or so of GDP per annum. Would this be a better way to go than the politically challenging route of UBI?

On the face of it, it is attractive. The politics of giving people services rather than cash seems easier. The NHS is founded in just this way. The report finds that the maximum value of this approach is £126 per week. The same money distributed as a UBI would deliver just £12.47 a week. Slam dunk right? Not so fast.

On closer reading, it turns out that ‘universal’ basic services are no such thing. The maximum value would accrue to 1.5 million households - those who benefit from the free housing component. For the other tens of millions, the value is quickly reduced to £39 a week. And if you don’t or can’t use public transport, for example if you live outside of cities, then the value is a mere £18 per week. And if you don’t wish to take up the food support? Then the value to you is £5 of free broadband and mobile – the only ‘universal’ element.

It turns out therefore that ‘universal’ basic services is actually ‘targeted living cost support’. And this is why the politics would likely backfire, with a whole host of unintended consequences lurking in the shadows such as stigmatisation of food support claimants as is entrenched in the US. ‘Universal’ basic services feels very much like an expansion of welfare – along with the political barriers of that approach - rather than a different approach to supporting all.

There is an opportunity cost too. The £42bn a year cost is a sum that would unlocks UBI. It may be only worth £12.47 per week but it’s rather like broadband services: it’s the investment that connects the final mile to actually put in place a decent UBI. By turning personal tax allowances into a cash payment, merging in much of the welfare state (with the exception of disability, housing and childcare) plus this extra investment, we would have a full UBI and the greater freedom and security that goes with it.

The authors of the report are right to highlight that other things matter and not just cash support. Our housing needs are at emergency levels. Transport and digital infrastructure matter in support of economic opportunity. Food insecurity in a country as wealthy as the UK is shameful. A series of responses are needed; UBI is just one element of a possible new social contract." (https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2017/10/universal-basic-services-or-universal-basic-income)

2. Mary Murphy and Michael McGann:

“UBI is often advocated on the grounds that it promotes agency and choice, offering ‘income, free from stigma, sanctions and control’. The relationship between universal income and agency is however not straightforward, as individuals with the same basic income can have very unequal thresholds of functioning and encounter different costs in meeting essential needs. This has led to a focus on universal basic services (UBS) as a ‘less flashy’ reform for reconfiguring the welfare state. At the heart of the concept of UBS, Anna Coote and Andrew Percy argue, is a mission to transform the way services are provided, to put people in control and to build a new role for the state to nurture such changes—ensuring equal access, distributing resources, setting and enforcing quality standards and co-ordinating services across different areas of need.

These different needs can be examined through related theories of wellbeing. The theory of human need of Ian Gough and Len Doyal establishes fundamental autonomy and health preconditions for individuals to realise the goals of wellbeing and social participation. It also specifies resources and conditions required to meet these needs, including food and water, housing, healthcare and education. Closely connected is Martha Nussbaum’s account of central human functional capabilities.

Both coalesce around universal conditions for human flourishing and set important limits on economic growth and development. Both follow Sen in arguing that economic production and consumption must always be appraised from the perspective of its contribution to meeting basic needs and promoting capabilities for flourishing—not as having intrinsic value. Both point to our moral obligation to constrain patterns of consumption and production within ecological limits to safeguard the needs of future generations as well as those of our fellow global citizens.

Recognising this ‘entails a different conception of the economy’. In place of the market economy as a system for producing, exchanging and consuming substitutable commodities according to price, the idea of a ‘foundational’ economy emerges, as a network of provisioning systems to satisfy a plurality of non-substitutable needs. While some of this may remain within the scope of the market, the framework of UBS provides guiding principles, and an evidence-based rationale, for collective provision based on access to services as of right, citizen participation, local control and diverse models of ownership—a combination which yields far better results than market transactions in terms of equity, efficiency, solidarity and sustainability.

Proponents of UBS are regularly dismissed as paternalist Fabians, but insist this is a more effective means of meeting basic needs than UBI. John Weeks sees UBI and UBS as complementary: UBI, informed by a ‘progressive liberalism’, is comfortable with market intervention while UBS, informed by social democracy, seeks to limit the role of markets in favour of social provision. Others however find the stress on liberal individualism versus ‘public sector paternalism’ less compatible. We would rather reframe this debate by offering participation income as an immediate guide to significant welfare reform which is complementary to UBS but might also, in the longer term, leave open the door to UBI.” (https://www.socialeurope.eu/reconfiguring-welfare-in-an-eco-social-state-participation-income-and-universal-services?)

Universal Basic Services is preferable over UBI

By Halina Szejnwald Brown

At the risk of going against the majority view in this forum, I would like to voice my skepticism about the UBI. A disclaimer: my perspective is that of an educated and concerned scholar who specializes in other areas of scholarship.

The goal of the Universal Basic Income is to give every citizen an opportunity to lead a dignified life in which their and their families’ basic physical and psychological needs are met in the world in which there may not be enough jobs for everybody and in which income from existing jobs may be inadequate.

I doubt that the UBI will deliver on this goal. I fear that it will do just the opposite: provide inadequately for the people who are marginalized in the current economy while preserving the system that marginalizes them in the first place.

Let me start with the list of universal human needs articulated by Ian Gough (2019): nutrition, shelter, social participation, education, health, physical security, and income security (I made small changes in Gough’s list). Providing people with modest income might help with obtaining nutrition, shelter, and income security though it is unlikely that the UBI will ever be high enough to truly eliminate the wants in these three categories. But it will do nothing to satisfy the other basic needs: health (too costly for private payments), education, social participation, and physical and income security. For those, we need functioning and well-funded institutions.

A problem with the UBI is that it commodifies the satisfiers of basic human needs. It essentially says that citizens should purchase them. By doing so, it perpetuates the neoliberal premise that the free market is the best system for meeting human needs and making everybody better off. After four decades of using this ideology as an organizing principle for society, we know that it is completely false in today’s global economy where the winner takes all. Building a new institution of the UBI on that same premise does not make sense to me.

Furthermore, the UBI will be a great opportunity for the free marketeers and libertarians to call for further shrinking of government’s role in providing for well-being of the society, the process that has been going on since the late seventies. “You have your income,” they will say, “isn’t that enough?” Yes, the proponents of the UBI say that it should complement other necessary government services and institutions. But I do not believe that, in reality, it will happen. What’s more, unless the UBI is indexed to some average or median salary (I am not sure how that can be done given severe income inequality), its fate will be similar to that of the minimum wage: from the first day of existence, it will start falling behind in its purchasing power.

And what happens when the political winds on the extreme right starve or completely eliminate the UBI? At that point, we will have neither: no government services and no individual income. I do not trust our political system to protect the UBI.

The UBI will essentially be a huge transfer of public money into the hands of private businesses. We are a consumer society. We are all influenced to lesser or greater extent by the genius of the marketing and advertising industry. For that industry, the stream of cash in the hands of citizens-consumers will be an irresistible sea of gold. No sooner will the money enter the household budgets that it will get clawed back into the pockets of producers of goods and services, whether needed or not. The U.S. household saving rate and debt demonstrate this phenomenon well. Yes, this transfer of wealth will keep the economy moving, but will the recipients of UBI spend the money to meet their basic needs and dignified life? Some will, many will not. Poverty will not disappear, and greenhouse gas emissions from all that consumption will be detrimental.

The UBI might have a more insidious impact. Giving people money to solve their daily problems of existence is equivalent to saying that everybody is on their own. Problems of one person are of no interest to another person. We already have plenty of this type of behavior. When schools are inadequately funded, many well-heeled parents send their children to private schools rather than working with other parents to solve this collective problem. Just look at what is happening during the Covid pandemic: private tutors, private study pods, private childcare. One of the reasons that the problem of access to health care in the US does not have sufficient political traction is that people with good health insurance (who usually have well-paying jobs and politically savvy) have little interest in risking it for a collective solution to this collective problem.

I prefer to live in a society where collective problems are solved together, not individually. As I watch with great trepidation the growing divisions in our society and the hatred between people, I feel that now more ever we need to build solidarity among people and a sense of common destiny. The UBI will not take us there.

The Universal Basic Services, UBS, approach is a more promising alternative to the UBI. In this model, all citizens have a guaranteed access to government-provided high-quality services which meet the basic needs of nutrition, shelter, social participation, education, health, and physical security. Public money remains in the public sphere, cash payments have less importance to households, and material consumption is less frantic, to the great benefit of global climate." (GTI, September 2020)

More information

  • Gough, Ian (2019) Universal Basic Services: a theoretical and moral framework. Political Quarterly, 90 (3): 534-542. eprints.lse.ac.uk/101051/
  • Anna Coote and Andrew Percy (2020). The Case for Universal Basic Services. Polity Press.

* Article / Chapter: From Technological Utopianism to Universal Basic Services. By Boris Frankel. In: Post-Capitalist Futures pp 77–86. Palgrave Macmillan, 2022

URL = https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-16-6530-1_7

Part of the Alternatives and Futures: Cultures, Practices, Activism and Utopias book series (AFCPAU)

"Proposals for post-capitalism can be divided into various forms. This chapter focuses on two prominent forms: firstly, technological utopian imaginaries based on technological developments within capitalist societies which are connected and applied to radical social change goals such as creating ‘fully automated luxury communism’ or networks of zero marginal cost products and services; secondly, those proposals which reject ‘techno-fixes’ and conceive alternative socio-economic policies geared to social justice based on eco-socialism or degrowth in material production and consumption. This chapter outlines the strengths of universal basic services (UBS) and argues that UBS schemes are more beneficial and realisable than universal basic income schemes as both a means of advancing the transition to post-capitalist societies and ensuring that any socially just alternative becomes environmentally sustainable."