(By Justin P. Holder) Being concerned about the world’s problems is frustrating. The huge problems seem too big to do anything about, and the small problems seem insignificant in comparison.
Poverty is one of those big problems. The amount of suffering it causes and the extent to which it is entrenched within our economic system is difficult to overstate. But what is one to do about that? Giving to charity is nice but doesn’t make much headway in addressing the fundamental problem. Overthrowing capitalism may or may not help, but is not something that most of us can meaningfully work towards in our lifetimes.
No radical poverty alleviation strategy will be easy, but it is possible that one might be simple. Universal basic income is such a strategy. It has the characteristics that I take to be the Holy Grails of the serious activist: it is simple, it is realistic, and it is already in motion.
A universal basic income is an unconditional cash grant paid to every member of a community on a regular basis. In other words, it’s a publicly funded salary for doing nothing, owed to everyone. For many, this idea sounds unbearably naïve, but economists around the world have been developing it for decades. Theoretical models and practical experiments in smaller communities have not revealed any reason to think the policy infeasible. On the contrary, funding for such a policy would be far from impossible to find, and both predicted and actual consequences have been overwhelmingly positive.
This policy was brought to my attention by a friend of mine not long ago. We are both young Barbadian men, fresh out of our first degrees at the University of the West Indies (UWI). It didn’t take much thinking on my part to realise how powerful an idea it really was. He told me that he was researching the policy as it relates specifically to Barbados: how our budget could be adjusted to fund it, how high the basic income could be, etc. I told him on the spot that I wanted to be involved in any way I could in the effort to get a basic income implemented in Barbados. Not long after, we opened a Facebook page with the name Basic Income Barbados.
Our efforts are still embryonic, but I have more hope for the future than I’ve had in a long time. One shouldn’t underestimate the value of having a goal that can be visualised. Too often, we can imagine only vague and unreachable solutions to problems that are very concrete and imminent in our experience. But I know exactly what getting a guaranteed income would look like; I know what it would mean to people who are struggling to keep their heads above water and – more importantly – they know what it would mean to them. It is not a difficult concept to explain to anyone and the path from here to there is not a mysterious one.
Where would the money come from? Part of it would come from the liquidation of existing expensive poverty alleviation programmes. We spend a lot of money funding administratively bloated welfare programmes that are not nearly as effective as a basic income would be. A good deal of the money that goes into existing programmes never actually makes it to the people who need it. The simplicity of a basic income dodges this issue as well as the psychological problems with requiring the needy to claim welfare; no one is made to feel that they have not been capable of taking care of themselves, nor are they subjected to intrusive means testing or screening.
In the best case scenario, it will be a very long time before universal basic income is on Barbados’ national agenda. In the mean time we’re trying to get the ball rolling by writing pieces like this, speaking to potential allies, and doing solid research. We’ve got a long road ahead convincing people that free money won’t make everyone lazy delinquents (it won’t – UNICEF-funded experiments in India showed an increase in economic activity and work, for example), and that unemployed young men “on the block” should be trusted with some financial responsibility. The poverty of these kinds of objections is very apparent to us so we’re prepared to shoot them down when they appear. Good ideas don’t take root without a lot of resistance.
Young people aren’t lacking for good ideas, but there aren’t many avenues for us to take part meaningfully in political life. Many think the only option is to be assimilated into a political party, but the results of that move are predictably uninspiring most of the time. With employment being harder to come by, young people have a vested interest in pursuing a social safety net that will maintain everyone’s dignity, freedom, and ability to live comfortably within the thoes of an increasingly hostile economy.
Justin P. Holder is a Philosophy graduate from the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. He is presently busying himself with activism and writing while preparing to further his studies.