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The Hidden Work that Happens with Basic Universal Income

In the last few years many thousands of words have been written about Universal Basic Income: the proposal that a government gives every citizen a monthly income, no question asked, that covers their basic needs, which acts as a secure base for whatever else they might do with their lives. The aspect that interests me the most about Universal Basic Income is that which, I imagine, opponents of the idea think of as the biggest downside. That if a great many people choose to exist only on their basic income, and not to do any extra work to top it up, what will this do to the landscape of work? Will there be essential work that won’t be done? And will a majority of the population simply choose to sit around and do nothing, perhaps drinking their lives away on (very cheap, perhaps own-brewed) alcohol?

I don’t imagine that the majority of people will sit around doing nothing. And this was demonstrated for me in the last couple of weeks when I became involved in a scheme to help feed the homeless throughout December.

This scheme was started by a woman called Kelly who runs a cafe near where I live. Last year on Xmas Eve Kelly and her husband cooked a lot of extra hot food at the cafe, and when they closed up for the day drove around town handing it to all the homeless people they found. This year Kelly thought she might make the scheme a little bigger, and so put a message out on the cafe’s Facebook page asking if anyone would like to help, expecting maybe a dozen responses, so she might be able to reach and feed more people. And more than four hundred people responded with offers of help (one of which was me).

So many people responded that Kelly was not able to manage making enough food for, and organising that many helpers. So I ended up helping with the organisation of volunteers, and in the end we managed to make use of all just about all this free labour, to the point that we were able send out food and clothing parcels to homeless people all over the city not just on Xmas Eve but throughout December. And with the money raised through donations are planning to carry on with some kind of scheme throughout the winter.

What was interesting was that we had by far the most offers of help on Xmas Eve – because that was the time when people were on holiday from their jobs. Part of the impetus was that people wanted to do something to help others at Christmas time. But when we extended the scheme to more days earlier in December people still wanted to help but were now apologetic, sometimes annoyed, even angry, that they were no longer able to because they would be at work.

I was able to offer my help with organising the scheme because I happen to work freelance, in a job that I can do for only a day or two a week and have enough on which to live. And so I chose to not work as much in December, and focus on the feeding the homeless scheme instead. In fact if I had a full-time job I might not have even thought to offer help, I would probably have made excuses to myself: I already do enough, working full-time, I don’t have the time to help. But I am lucky to have the freedom, and so the energy to do so.

And imagine all the energy unleashed towards this and other such socially-beneficial schemes if more people could make that choice: between paid work, and work that they really valued.

This is one corner of the landscape of work in a society with Universal Basic Income. Other corners will see people going out to work just as they have always done, because they want to earn money to buy the things that they have always bought. But some sections of society will look at the choice between earning more money through paid work and organising their own schemes, or joining in with other people’s. And these schemes will have tangible social (even economic) benefits to society, such as helping feed the homeless, despite their being no economic activity taking place that pays the workers themselves. Better still, the nature of these schemes will be determined by the collective will of individuals, by one or more people saying, ‘this is what I want to see happen, I’m going to go do it’. The barriers to enacting such desires will be greatly lessened, and more work,will be able to take place: all manner of schemes, started simply because people want them to be, with no regard for profitability. That is a lot of schemes that currently do not exist.

Support the idea of Universal Basic Income. Read up on it – Scott Santens, one of the foremost writers on Universal Basic Income, has an FAQ which is a good place to start. The landscape of work in a world where Universal Basic Income is a basic human right is one where our imaginations have a much greater scope for how we spend our lives.

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