The social security cycle
It’s not a secret that if you are hungry and don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you are likely to feel perpetually stressed. When we are stressed, the hormone cortisol is released into the body, sending us into ‘fight or flight’ mode. If this becomes our normal state, it can be very difficult to think and function, and this can lead to feelings of hopelessness, being overwhelmed, and distress.
The British social security system doesn’t seem to recognise this, instead suggesting that threatening destitution and starvation for people who don’t comply with their conditions, thereby inducing stress, will somehow provide people with the confidence they need to acquire a well-paid job. The numerous (over 100) changes to social security over the last 15 years have all contributed to benefit claims being more difficult, people receiving less money, and more conditions being placed on people applying to receive them – which, in turn, leads to sanctions.
Sometimes, these sanctions have been applied in instances where they seem impossible to justify – for example, the man sanctioned for missing a job centre appointment as his wife was having a miscarriage. Being sanctioned means no income – sometimes for months on end – and therefore people have been left to starve, and to be reliant on foodbanks.
A staggering increase in foodbank use in Wales
Foodbank use in Wales rose a staggering 480% between 2011 and 2014 when many of these changes to social security occurred. Since 2014 it ‘stabilised’ (in the sense that rate of increase declined) and so then rose by ‘only’ a further 54%. In sheer numbers this meant 135,000 people – 51,000 of them children – using foodbanks in the year prior to the pandemic (the pandemic itself increasing food bank use). That’s 135,000 people experiencing a stress response to being hungry.
Surely there is a better way?
The concept of citizens basic income, or universal basic income (UBI), goes back decades and has had supporters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.
The idea is a simple one. You look at a welfare system that requires people to jump through numerous hoops and adhere to often impossible standards of behaviour – and then you decide to do the opposite. You provide people with a regular cash payment unconditionally.
It doesn’t matter if they then work a few hours in the gig economy – they keep that extra cash, instead of going through laborious and impersonal assessments to determine their right to it. It doesn’t matter if they have an illness that fluctuates in severity – they get the cash, instead of hoping their work capability assessment falls on a day when that illness is plainer to see. And it doesn’t matter if they have to miss their job-centre appointment because their wife is having a miscarriage – they get the cash. No hunger, no stress response, no foodbanks, and fewer illnesses.
Critics of this idea argue that by removing conditions to look for work, people will somehow get lazy. That they’ll lose all interest in finding employment. But having been an out-of-work 22 year old, I can tell you that it gets boring very quickly.
The truth is that the unconditionality of Universal Basic Income enables people to focus on volunteering, getting work experience for the careers they want, caring for relatives, or pursuing their own entrepreneurial ideas.
Indeed, let’s digress here to the 1980s, when the Conservative government set up the Young Enterprise Allowance, which effectively meant any young person with a business idea could get the job centre off their backs, and receive benefits unconditionally while they worked on said business. Some of the most legendary record companies of all time were created via this scheme, illustrating that anything can happen if you allow people to pursue their passions.
And of course, the cash involved won’t make people rich – it’ll just allow them to cover the essentials for life. That means people can be free to take up casual work to top up their incomes – and that there will actually be more incentive to do so, as they won’t suddenly lose their benefits or be required to complete rainforests of paperwork.
A better way forward
At Platfform, we want to see a world where people who may have received a mental health diagnosis no longer have to attend impersonal, system-led assessments in order to be able to eat. We think it would enhance the wellbeing of people to not have to worry anymore about being able to afford their next meal, and would be a step on the road to healing, and discovering a sense of purpose.
That’s why we’re delighted that the Welsh Government is committed to introducing a pilot scheme for basic income in Wales. We are hoping that people with a mental health diagnosis are included in this pilot, and more importantly that those tasked with evaluating the scheme are instructed to measure the wellbeing of participants rather than focus on narrow economic measures.
Wales is not the first nation to do such a pilot, of course. Finland ran a pilot basic income scheme that found recipients were more satisfied with their lives and experienced less mental strain, depression, sadness and loneliness. They also had a more positive perception of their cognitive abilities – memory, learning and ability to concentrate.
In Scotland, the evaluation of their pilot scheme found that there were likely to be significant positives for wellbeing, with women with childcare commitments particularly likely to benefit. However, that evaluation also found that the UK government’s co-operation was essential for running a larger pilot.
There are, potentially, even more advantages. Job centre staff themselves have often felt demoralised within the existing system – they have little autonomy on exactly how they can try to help the people in front of them, they have to meet with claimants presenting complex life issues and fit those into a simplistic system, and they have to cope with the knowledge that the actions they are obliged to take may actually make things worse.
A more effective, compassionate approach might see those same job coaches tied less to systems, targets and paperwork. With more room to help people genuinely achieve their goals in life, we might see better wellbeing on both sides of the desk. Isn’t it time we gave that a try?
Hopefully Wales’s Pilot scheme can start to show us a better way.