Basic income: An idea whose time has come
6 September 2021 at 4:09 pm
Our experience during the pandemic showed how a secure income can change lives for the better. So why shouldn’t Australia have a permanent basic income, asks Kasy Chambers, Anglicare Australia executive director.
Anglicare Australia has seen first-hand the impact poverty has on people’s lives. Our broken safety net and workforce changes are pushing more people into poverty every year. And every year, more of these Australians are turning to charities like ours just to get by.
We have also seen how a secure income can change lives for the better. Last year, the JobSeeker payment was doubled in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Obligations for those getting the payment were lifted. The JobKeeper wage subsidy was brought in to help workers, especially casuals, stay afloat if work dried up. This support gave many Australians access to a form of basic income for the first time.
Immediately, hundreds of thousands of people were lifted out of poverty. People’s health and wellbeing improved, and many could finally save for the future.
The changes were only temporary. But they confirmed what many of us have always known – poverty is not inevitable. It is a policy choice. Simply paying liveable income to so many people, including those who were out of work or employed casually, all but ended the problem of poverty in Australia. Why, when an income above the poverty line brought so many benefits to so many people, shouldn’t Australia have a permanent basic income?
That is what Anglicare Australia set out to answer in Valuing Every Contribution, the second edition in our Australia Fair series. It saw us become the first major charity to back a basic income.
The idea of a basic income has existed for at least four centuries, proposed as early as 1516 by Thomas Moore in Utopia. There are many models for a basic income, but we surveyed Australians about a payment that would secure an income above the poverty line for every adult. The payment would be unconditional.
We were overwhelmed by the response – 77 per cent of people across the country, of all ages and income levels, wanted everyone to have a liveable income above the poverty line. Only 7 per cent opposed the idea.
People also told us how a permanent basic income would change their lives, and what they might do with it. Two in five told us that they would sure up their savings. This would future-proof households, leaving them more able to withstand a future economic downturn – and the normal ebbs and flows of life. We already know that many Australians wouldn’t be able to put their hands on $500 for an emergency. A basic income would allow them to buy insurance, one of the first items that goes when people live hand to mouth, and to put aside savings to fall back on when they need it.
One in five told us that they would spend the money studying or building their qualifications, which would allow them to swap to industries more easily or gain a more secure job. Here again Australia would benefit from a more flexible workforce that can weather the storms and changes of progress.
We also saw the desire that people have to contribute. One in four told us they would volunteer more. The same percentage said they would care for family or friends in need. We all know the difference volunteers make to people’s lives in the community sector. We also know the difference being a volunteer makes to those able to make that contribution. The environment, creative arts, and many other areas enjoy the services of volunteers and the whole country is richer for it.
The report gained a lot of media attention. One question we were often asked by journalists was how can Australia pay for a basic income. Of course, nothing is free. Our current system isn’t free. Anglicare Australia’s own modelling shows that almost $69 billion in tax transfers goes to the top 20 per cent of income earners every year. It is clear that it is a choice for us to keep some Australians in poverty – we can afford to spend more on the lowest 20 per cent, who only get $6 billion.
None of this counts the human cost of wasted potential. The self-insured household needs less in disaster payments. The flexible and re-trained worker finds it easier to find and retain work. And of course, the person with enough money to live on is healthier and less likely to need help down the line.
Our experience during the pandemic shows that a permanent basic income works. It works for individuals, it works for the economy, and it allows us to value every contribution. That is why so many people are now backing the idea.
It will take leadership and it will take a major political party to champion it. But with more and more voters backing it, a basic income might be an idea whose time has come.