ROME – Inspired by Pope Francis’ latest book, Let us Dream, co-written with Briton Austen Ivereigh, a seminar on Thursday considered the pontiff’s proposal for a “Universal Basic Income,” meaning a government-guaranteed minimum income that each citizen would receive unconditionally.
Michael Pugh from a group called Basic Income Conversation defined the “core concept” of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a regular cash payment for everyone, forever, that would go to each individual, with no exceptions, regardless of a person’s background.
“While there are different proposals of how much the sum would be and how to implement it, all of them imply the same: We all have the right to financial stability,” he said. The idea, he noted, dates back centuries but has taken off in recent years, particularly because there has been an increase in “instability” and “insecurity,” which the expert said, “is the overwhelming experience of the modern age,” with unstable work conditions and housing, together with unstable climate and so on.
“Perhaps more importantly is the issue that the hardest and most valuable work in society, such as parenting or looking after loved ones, is overlooked and almost entirely unpaid,” Pugh said. “UBI can help us reimagine what work means in society, and to allow us to reimagine it.”
Those who defend UBI argue that it can give everyone a basic level of security and this leads to freedom for people to better balance their jobs, decide to go back to education, spend more time with loved ones or volunteering.
Security does not lead to laziness, was the common thread of those taking part in Thursday’s seminar who defended UBI. How much money comes in, Pugh argued, is not as important as the regularity, the knowing that no matter what, rain, fire or snow, money will come in on X day of the month.
Though there have been several “experiments” here and there, with pilot cases in a variety of countries including Finland or Canada, UBI has never been applied at a national scale. However, in the cities or regions where it has been applied, there was a visible improvement in people’s health, as well as an actual increase of people working.
Ivereigh, who also wrote two biographies on the Argentine pontiff, moderated the seminar. Bishop John Arnold, chair of Cafod, the Catholic international development charity in England and Wales gave opening remarks, while Ruth Kelly, a British former banker and Labor minister and a member of Pope Francis’ Council for the Economy, and Sister Alessandra Smerilli, an economist who heads the economic branch of the Vatican’s Covid Commission task force, also spoke.
Arnold quoted Pope Francis, who back in March, during a historic blessing to the city of Rome and the world from an empty St. Peter’s Square said that there are two ways to emerge from a crisis: “The way we were before, or be better.”
“People talk of going back to normal, but the normal of recent years has not been working well at all,” the bishop said in a pre-recorded message.
After offering a brief history of Catholic social teaching starting with Rerum Novarum, an 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, Arnold said that there are “certain principles” that underpin the Church’ social teaching, above all, “the dignity of the human person.”
UBI, he said, might soon find itself be an expression of that teaching, for everyone being given a basic income that provides a livelihood would lead people being less desperate and hence forced to migrate under harrowing conditions, or forced to take a job in slave-like conditions. It would also mean that extreme poverty would be eradicated, as would hunger.
“A UBI is not harrowed totalitarian state where everyone is required to be the same because this would be a depravation of our individual dignity, but it would ensure that no one is left behind and no one is beyond reach,” he said. “It would be a milestone in achieving that care for our brothers and sisters.”
In the words of Smerilli, UBI would allow for “greater alternation of training, work and family for everyone,” and not only for those who can afford it, “the children of the rich.”
Smerilli believes that UBI would place human life and dignity at the center, subsidizing all those who perform a job and provide involuntarily unpaid services, which would then make it “The best way to guarantee true freedom to all, especially the vulnerable.”
It would also pursue a shared vision of integral human development, allowing for universal access to labor, livelihood-housing-, and land; and prioritize a collective importance of care, implementing structures that allow dedicated time to care full-time, and time to work part time, the sister said.
The member of the Vatican’s COVID-19 commission noted that not all work translates into jobs. Work is greater than jobs, she said, and life is greater than work. Caring for others is essential to our existence and equity, is essential for the quality of common life, she argued, and UBI can offer a pathway to safeguard care and equity.
In Ivereigh’s words, Smerilli presented the “big thinking” from Rome regarding UBI as a tool for further rethinking a post-COVID world, “one in which we consume less and regenerate more, which might require people doing things that have no price in the market, but a great value to society.”
Kelly was the voice sounding an alarm, perhaps not fully against UBI but definitely skeptical of it, particularly of how it would be funded. Kelly began by conceding that work is part of the fundamental dignity of a person, and there there’s a need to fight poverty and to assign value and recognition to “care,” meaning stay-at-home parents who care for their children or those who stay at home to care for someone who’s disabled.
Yet beyond concerns about the practical implementation of the UBI and the source of the funds, likely taxes, Kelly planted a “philosophical” seed of doubt. For her, it’s better to have a guaranteed minimum income, rather than a basic income that is a first resort, given unconditionally, not linked to any requirements to even look for work or contingent upon being ill or disabled.
It’s an issue Pope Francis addressed in his book with Ivereigh.
“Despite the fact that they create value, workers are treated as the most expendable element of an enterprise, while some shareholders—with their narrow interest in maximizing profits—call the shots,” Francis wrote in Let us Dream. “Our definition of the value of work is also far too narrow. We need to move beyond this idea that the work of the caregiver for her relative, or a full-time mother or volunteer in a social project, is not work because it pays no wages.”
It is in recognizing the value that the work of nonearners has for society that he suggests the exploration of concepts such as the universal basic income, also known as the “the negative income tax.”
“The UBI could reshape relations in the labor market, guaranteeing people the dignity of refusing employment terms that trap them in poverty,” the pontiff wrote. “It would give people the basic security they need, remove the stigma of welfarism, and make it easier to move between jobs as technology-driven labor patterns increasingly demand. Policies like the UBI can also help free people to combine earning wages with giving time to the community.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma