Monday 20 April 2009

If you have a heartbeat you are worth a Basic Income!

There have been short periods of my life when I’ve had more money than I knew what to do with, as well as, of course, long periods when I’ve had just enough. Certainly the happiest years of my life have coincided with times when I had little dosh and a lot of time, but equally, the darkest times came when there were debts: court summons’ piling up on the chair in the corner of my squalid 1980s London flat, covered by a pile of bills in red ink, final demands, credit card bills, letters from banks and overdue rates bills.
I knew I’d made it the top of Penury Mountain when I received one day from a certain charge card company a letter in a black envelope on bright red notepaper. Their message was printed in black ink on a scarlet sheet, and even though I was spending my days squatting on my knees, in the corner of my living room farthest from the bill-piled chair, gently rocking back and forth, humming a little tune to myself, it’s all going to be fine, ha ha doo bee doo, I did feel a thrill of perverse pride at having reached such a high echelon of corporate annoyance.
Everyone I knew back in those poverty-stricken days occasionally got bills in red ink, but I never heard of anyone else getting a bill on red paper.
And oh, that black envelope was an intimidating beauty.
So having found out that being hugely in credit doesn’t really make me happy, I also have first-hand experience of how terrible a thing is debt. Back then, in my 20’s, my financial crisis was pretty much self-inflicted, through a combination of youthful ignorance and a splash or two of hedonism and indulgence.
But it was no fun. Believe me. You never want to live in London on the dole. One of the things I love about this country, and particularly the West, is that in Ireland you are rarely punished for being poor. Of course you suffer the same lifestyle barriers and human right infringements that poor people suffer all over the world, but in your dealings with the dole and others, you are not confronted by the intimidating and often terrifying attitude prevalent in Thatcher’s England.
Back in the early 90s I was briefly on the dole in Galway, and could not believe how compassionate and cheerful the interviewers were. Ten year’s earlier I had been reduced to tears by a small English woman in the Shepherd’s Bush dole office, after she saw fit to tell me how pathetic I was and no, she had no idea when my benefit money might come through.
Some of those tears were of self-pity and dejection, but mostly they were furious and full of indignation. How dare she? What gave her the right?
Of course at the moment the Irish Welfare State is overwhelmed, the queues are stretching out forever, and doubtless tempers are fraying on both sides of the glass, but if you have never tried to draw dole in England, you do not know how lucky you are.
I’ve no idea whether this disparity in how the two nations deal with poverty is down to historical, cultural and religious grounds. It’s too easy to say the Irish are more compassionate because they have suffered so much in the past. All populations have suffered.
Whatever the causes, the difference is stark. With the Euro and Sterling close to parity, a week on the dole in England right now will earn you a measly £60.50, while over the water here in Ireland, the same week will give you €204.30.
However, right now welfare systems all over Ireland are backed up with a glut of applications, and traumatised people who have recently lost their jobs are having to make the weekly trawl up to their CWO (Community Welfare Officer) to get emergency payments, so that they can feed their children and survive until the dole payments come through.
I’m hearing stories of 2-3 month waits for official payments, and it breaks my heart. Why should these people, who have suffered so much, many for the greed and sins of others, be subjected to this exhausting and demeaning Poverty Trail?
Have we not finally arrived at a time when Basic Income might be the perfect answer?
Simply put, a Basic Income is a singular amount paid to every permanent resident of a country. It is not applied for; not means tested; not predicated on age, sex, gender or anything. If you have a heartbeat you are entitled to receive a Basic Income.
There are many highly-respected organisations the world over who have explored the fine economic details of Basic Income, and in his final book ‘Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective - the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
This colyoomist is no economist, so let’s say for the sake of argument that the Irish Basic Income was set at €200 a week. There are those who would choose not to earn more than that, but equally there are many millions who prefer a better lifestyle, and would rather work than live on that subsistence level.
But oh, think of the benefits. Think of the economic savings. There would be no need for the massive bureaucracy that is the present Welfare State. Instead of processing hundreds of thousands of forms, welfare workers could concentrate on the needs of those most vulnerable in society, those very people whose schemes and day centres and projects are now the first to be slashed in the name of ‘savings’.
Instead of chasing scammers and fraudsters and dole cheats, agency workers could apply their funds and time to improving the dignity of those on the fringes of society.
There would be no need for the costly, pointless and dreaded Emergency payments; no shamed faces in the dole queue; no need for terror at the thought of being made redundant.
Right now Gordon Brown and Barack Obama are spending billions in a bid to stimulate the world economy. What could possibly do more to encourage people to spend, to invest, to share their funds, time, ideas and ingenuity, than a cash injection of human dignity?

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