By Natasha Osben
24 March 2021
The Covid pandemic has shone a light on the vast inequalities that still exist in our society today. The resulting economic and domestic crisis threatens to undo decades of progress toward a more gender-equal society, with women being the worst-affected by job losses and insecurity, alongside school closures and increased caring demands. Furthermore, many women have found themselves not only out of work, but stuck at home with abusive partners, upon whom they are now far more financially reliant than before the pandemic. Anita Bhatia, UN Women’s Assistant-Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director has warned that the additional care burdens generated by the pandemic, which have fallen disproportionately on women, present us with a “real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes”.
Despite the threat of increased inequalities post-Covid, the UK Government’s latest Budget set out plans to cut spending on public services. Even before Covid, women were already more likely than men to experience poverty, to rely on low-paid and precarious work, and to become or remain dependent on a ‘breadwinning’ partner. It therefore stands to reason that the spending cuts set out in Rishi Sunak’s 2021 budget speech will hit women the hardest. The Women’s Budget Group observed that the “Budget was a missed opportunity to rebuild the economy so that it works for everyone and builds resilience into the future.”
So, what should the Government be doing to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic? As Anna Coote and Neal Lawson wrote recently, “post-COVID Britain needs a new social guarantee”. Without a radical response, increased poverty, unemployment and inequality will become the inevitable legacies of the Covid pandemic. To this end, Coote and Lawson argue for a new social guarantee, comprised of both a Universal Basic Income and Universal Basic Services. Are they right?
Cash or services?
For as long as there have been advocates of Universal Basic Income (UBI) or similar schemes, others have argued that a focus on in-kind service provision – i.e. Universal Basic Social Services (UBS) – is preferable. Supporters of UBI, however, argue that the provision of regular, unconditional cash payments is more desirable because it recognises and respects human dignity and autonomy. UBI, through its universality, treats all people equally, by acknowledging – unlike conditional welfare systems – the fundamental worth and autonomy of all citizens. The introduction of UBI, they argue, would eradicate the stigma and humiliation that often accompanies claiming conditional welfare benefits.
On the other hand, UBS advocates argue that a focus on providing an increased and upgraded range of basic social services more effectively ensures that the basic needs of all are met. With human fallibility in mind, they suggest that, too often, people – and especially poor people – can fail to make better choices for their lives when they are given the chance to choose otherwise.
For example, Housing Benefit was once paid directly to claimants’ landlords, but since legacy benefits were replaced with Universal Credit in 2013, the housing element has been paid directly to the claimant. Universal Credit was designed to be paid in arrears, with the purported intention of helping claimants to learn how to manage their money in preparation for moving off of benefits and into paid employment. Contrary to that aim, the transition from legacy benefits to Universal Credit has increasingly seen claimants failing to pay their rent, and subsequently facing the threat of eviction and homelessness. Homeless Link reported that 80% of respondents to their ‘Young and Homeless’ research survey reported that receiving housing costs directly rather than having this benefit paid to the landlord was impacting young people’s access to housing. So, there is good reason to think that certain benefits might be better received in-kind, than in cash.
In response, UBI proponents, worry that provision of benefits in-kind undermines citizens’ dignity and autonomy, treating them as untrustworthy or incapable of managing their finances to best serve their own interests, and assuming that they would make poor decisions about what to do with their own money. During periods of national lockdown and school closures, focus has fallen on how to best provide for those children who would usually have received free meals at school. The public have often seemed divided between those who advocate vouchers or cash being provided directly to the parents of poor children, and those who insist that, instead, food parcels ought to be provided in such circumstances.
When, at the start of the Spring term, it came to light that the quality of food parcels being provided to poor families was questionable, many still claimed that poor families should be grateful for any assistance at all. Providing children with two carrots, a single potato, half a loaf of bread, and a block of cheese was thought preferable to parents being provided with extra cash that they might spend unwisely. Understandably, many poor parents felt that such meagre assistance disrespected their dignity and autonomy: they should be able to choose what to feed their children and, in any case, would make better choices than had those who were responsible for the existing food parcels.
Beyond the binary
What these two specific examples suggest – housing benefit and free school meals – is that we shouldn’t see the provision of benefits either in kind or in cash as a strict dichotomy that needs to be resolved decisively on one side or the other. For too long theorists and activists on the Left have quibbled over the choice between UBI or UBS, overlooking the most plausible answer: why not both?
But this doesn’t resolve the question of which benefits should be provided in-kind, and how generous UBI payments should be. While there’s not the space for a full outline here, I suggest that we can begin to develop a response by distinguishing goods which are better accessed through cash, and which respect for our autonomy demands that we should be able to exercise a fair amount of choice over, such as: food, clothing, hobbies, holidays, etc. We might call these ‘type A goods’.
Then, there are goods which are better provided in-kind through collective cooperation and public funding – we can call these ‘type B goods’. These are goods which are generally too costly for most people to access through cash, and/or would sustain a morally undesirable social structure when people are required to source them through private cash transactions. What kinds of goods and services should therefore be provided through UBS? The following are some key examples: healthcare, social care, childcare, education, secure housing, public transport, access to the internet, gas and electricity, etc.
The provision of extensive public services would significantly reduce the amount of cash benefits required to guarantee that everyone could afford to pay for type A goods. In other words, provision of type B goods through UBS would significantly reduce the essential costs of living, meaning that the amount of cash benefits needed for UBI to satisfy the requirements of sufficiency would be significantly less than in UBS’s absence. Furthermore, a reduction in living costs would leave people with more freedom to use their UBI income, as well as any income from paid labour, for whatever other purposes that they deem valuable, respecting their dignity and autonomy by enabling them to make their own choices about how best to pursue their conception of a good life. Additionally, the investment in publicly funded and provided services on this scale would generate substantial employment opportunities across the public sector. This creation of paid job opportunities will clearly be important for economic growth and rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic. At the same time, increased spending from families taken out of poverty through UBI will play a role in repairing and growing the economy throughout the post-Covid recovery period and beyond.
This combination of UBS and UBI could completely transform existing structural arrangements within our society: as Coote and Lawson note, “It would build a sense of shared responsibility and solidarity, because everyone contributes and everyone benefits”. But perhaps most importantly, a combined programme of UBI and UBS could begin to close the gender gap once more and to move toward a fairer, more equal society. Provision of UBS, including secure housing, childcare, elderly care, and other forms of social care, in addition to the regular payment of universal cash payments, would enable women to regain the independence and security that was cruelly stolen from so many of them by the pandemic, because of the structural weaknesses and inequalities clearly present in our pre-covid and existing economic and institutional arrangements. There is good reason to be optimistic that the transformative effect of a UBI and UBS combination would be such that – in the event of future crises – gender equality would be less vulnerable to the rapid and disastrous erosion witnessed during the Covid pandemic.
Natasha is a doctoral researcher based in the Department of Government at the University of Essex. Her research focuses on the future of work and the limits of welfare conditionality in the U.K. As part of her partnership with Autonomy, Natasha will be developing concepts related to the future of welfare, specifically on questions of space and service.