An unconditional basic income for everyone. Can you imagine what that would be like? Everyone, from the age of 18 till the day they draw their last breath, receives a fixed monthly income from the government, with no strings attached. Just enough to satisfy your basic needs: housing, health insurance, education, clothing and food bills – let’s have a good look if basic income in the Netherlands is a viable thing…
If you like working, you can go out and enjoy a full-blown career, or a part-time job, working as many days a week as you like. You earn wages on top of your basic income and spend them on making life more comfortable. If you hate the fast pace and pressures of holding down a job, you settle for the basic income and pursue the less materialist pleasures in life. It’s your choice.
Utopia or plain common sense
Is basic income in the Netherlands an utopia or a workable solution for our post-employment future? A growing number of economists and social scientists around the world believe that a basic income is not only possible but indeed the only way forward in a world where automation has already made millions of unskilled and low-skilled jobs redundant and the trend to replace man with artificial intelligence will only increase in coming decades. It really is an unstoppable process and we have to face the fact that very soon there simply won’t be enough jobs to go round.
Paying a basic income to rich and poor alike, irrespective of whether they work or not, is increasingly viewed as the only way to reconcile the two central objectives of social and economic policy: to achieve poverty relief for those who need it and full employment for those who want it.
Basic Income in the Netherlands: The Terneuzen experiment
A few weeks ago a small-scale experiment in the southern town of Terneuzen, involving giving 20 people a basic income without the requirement to work or show willingness to work, was blocked by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, under the pretext that such a trial would be ‘at odds with the Participation Act’. Other Dutch municipalities, including the cities of Groningen, Utrecht, Nijmegen and Wageningen, are also interested in trying out this new economic model, but until the government can grasp the idea that an unconditional basic income truly means ‘no strings attached’, we won’t be able to move forward.
Can we afford it?
Of course the first thing people say when they hear of a basic income is: how would the government pay for it? Proponents of the basic income have come up with many scenario’s in which a redistribution of government revenues can successfully cover a basic income for everyone.
Some proposals rely on a modest basic income in the Netherlands replacing existing benefits (housing, care, unemployment, poverty alleviation, disability), tax exemptions and reductions, as well as the costly, hugely bureaucratic and hopelessly inadequate Employment Insurance Agency (UWV) that is currently responsible for vetting each individual’s eligibility for benefits and tax cuts: their earnings and/or efforts to find employment, their living arrangements and even their travel itineraries and relationship status.
The supplements the government will still be paying out to segments of the population who need support on top of their basic incomes (families with children, the elderly, people with special needs) will be but a fraction of what it pays out now in disability benefits, child benefits and old age pensions.
Other proposals involve funding the basic income out of a common pool of revenues from a variety of (new) sources. More revenue can be generated, for example, by taxing ‘means’ at a higher average rate. Don’t forget that everyone, including those with means, will be benefitting from a monthly basic income on top of what they are already earning. Other examples include introducing a specific levy on a very broadly defined income base or raising value-added tax.
And what of the alarming number of people suffering from burn-out and other stress related illnesses? How much is this epidemic costing our society? Taking the pressure off will surely save the country a great deal in medical bills and disability benefits.
So I may as well hang up my hammock?
The second thought that pops into most people’s minds is: nobody will want to work, so the economy will completely collapse.
Well, the fact is that most people enjoy working. From the intellectual stimulation and personal fulfillment of a career, to the social interaction and regular schedule of a job: there are as many reasons to go out to work as there are bikes in the Netherlands. And of course the financial incentive is still there. I honestly think there is no danger that people would quit their jobs en masse if basic income in the Netherlands would be introduced.
Of course there are jobs out there that people would rather not do. But how sad is it anyway that people are forced to work 40 hours a week, wearing out their bodies, just to earn their bread and butter.
In a modern country like ours there must be ways to make even the toughest or most tedious of jobs attractive. We could look at solutions like job-sharing, reducing work hours, improving work conditions and introducing a healthier balance between work and family.
Getting rid of the stigma
How long are we going to continue stigmatizing those who are unable to work, for whatever reason of their own? When is the Ministry of Employment going to stop forcing people into 9 to 5 jobs they cannot hold down.
For those who do want a job, getting out of the unemployment trap can be so tricky under the current system that many daren’t take the step. The financial sacrifice – think of child care and travel expenses – is not compensated by the difference in income from a low-paid job compared to that from the conventional benefit system. The complicated requirements and restrictions, duties and penalties imposed by the benefit system makes it very difficult for an unemployed person to accept temporary work or to combine jobs.
In the Netherlands, and in much of the western world, a huge amount of vital community work, like caring for the aged, the dying, working with addicts or psychiatric patients, running sports clubs, libraries, cultural centres, educating children – is actually being done by volunteers.
This work is often carried out by people who don’t or no longer fit into the modern rat-race – too old, not skilled enough, too insecure, too psychologically fragile, too creative – yet still desire to lead a useful life, enjoy some collegiality and feel appreciated. Under the current system these ‘unemployed’ people are seen as preying upon the taxpayer’s money.
Basic income in the Netherlands: The benefit of the doubt
In the American state of Alaska all residents, including children, receive an unconditional annual grant from the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend. The fund sets aside a certain share of its oil revenues to continue benefiting current and future generations. A ‘real world’ example of basic income that has been successfully going since 1982.
In France presidential candidate Benoit Hamon, who stands a serious chance of becoming the next Socialist president, is a firm supporter of a basic income. Several proposals have been made at the level of the European Union and some also, more speculatively, at the level of the United Nations.
A basic income for everyone could be the answer to so many of our society’s problems. I think it’s high time the Dutch Cabinet gives it some serious consideration and rises above the conventional view that you get ‘nothing for nothing’ in this world.