Last (Personal) Thoughts: Means-Testing, Privilege, and Basic Income

I’ve come at the Basic Income question from various technical angles. But maybe my discomfort about it really comes from personal feeling. I’ll try to write about that, though I find it much more difficult.

One of the key advantages that Basic Income People claim for their idea of a universal, unconditional Basic Income (UBI) is that it eliminates means-testing. There are lots of ugly features of means testing, as we all know. People claiming disability pensions, for instance, have to submit to invasive and often humiliating tests to prove their inability to take ordinary paid work. It also means that a certain social stigma is attached to the receipt of welfare: those dependent on it are easily characterised as losers in the game of life. It is patronising and demeaning.

But I think that the problem lies, not with means-testing itself, but with the way that it is often thought about. I think the very idea of ‘means-tested welfare’ is inherently patronising. It suggests that people who are unsuited to ordinary paid work are charity cases, dependent on handouts that the rest of us have to make sacrifices in order to pay for.

Here is a better way of thinking about it. Humans are inherently reciprocal. Not only do we  expect that people who draw benefit from society ought to make their contribution to society. We also, most of us, want to make our contribution. People who can’t contribute through traditional paid work look for other ways to contribute. They have to be more creative and work harder to find those ways.

The income that they receive is not a charitable handout. It’s a collective acknowledgment by society that they are making their contribution to society outside of the ordinary capitalist framework – they have no choice.

Extending the same income to everybody devalues this acknowledgment. It changes the institution of welfare so that it no longer recognises the difference in privilege between those who are able to enter traditional paid jobs and those who are not.

One could, of course, pay means-tested benefits in addition to the UBI. But that could simply reintroduce all the stigma and degradation that comes with means-testing. Moreover, paying a UBI to everyone devalues what is specially paid to those facing unique challenges, if not economically then at least socially. The difference between what they receive and the UBI is society’s acknowledgment of the special effort they make. The smaller that difference, the lesser the acknowledgment. Since their effort is special, their reward should be special; it is deprived of this status to the extent that a similar reward is returned to everyone.

As for stigma, some people argue that people with disabilities deserve to be regarded as equals, and treating them as equals means giving them no more and no less than anyone else. This is similar to the statement sometimes made that gender-equality should mean treating females and males on an identical basis. This is, of course, the bigot’s theory of equality. Genuinely regarding somebody as an equal means trying your best to understand the (often hidden) privileges you might have over her, just as you would want her to do if the roles were reversed. It would be excellent if we could replace the term ‘means-testing’ with ‘privilege-recognising’ – in our thoughts if not in our explicit statements. This is the way to get rid of the stigma around means-testing, instead of simply abolishing it.

Now I am well aware that the opportunities to contribute to society that the market presents are often bullshit. People are forced to do things of no  benefit to society in order to earn enough to get by. Others – those born into money for example – are entitled not only to draw as much benefit from society as they like; they are also entitled to contribute in whatever way they like. There are plenty of people who would love to do meaningful work in unpaid charity internships; they just can’t afford it. This is unfair.

But the solution is not to pay everyone a UBI, so that each person can decide for herself how to make the most valuable contribution. Again, extending this benefit to everyone devalues the special recognition society gives to those facing unique challenges from a position of reduced privilege.

The solution is to guarantee everyone an opportunity to make a genuine contribution to society, for a decent living wage. It’s just not as simple as paying everyone a UBI so that they can volunteer for a charity, form a band, or write a great novel. Rather, the state should create meaningful jobs directly so that socially important roles can be recognised as official paid positions. That’s the point of the Job Guarantee. With proper democratic institutions, society should be able to collectively determine which roles are most needed that the market isn’t providing. Randall Wray gives the following list of potential jobs that a guarantee programme could offer:

  • Companion for the elderly, bed-ridden, orphans, mentally and physically disabled
  • Public school classroom assistant
  • Safety monitor for public school grounds, areas surrounding schools, playgrounds, subway stations, street intersections, and shopping centers
  • Neighborhood cleanup/Hiway [sic] cleanup engineers
  • Low income housing restoration engineers
  • Day care assistants for children of JG workers and others
  • Environmental safety monitors
  • JG artist or musician
  • Community or cultural historian

Yes, there are things that society desperately needs that markets don’t seem to provide. But the special case of a non work-dependent basic income should be reserved for those whose unique situation means that their contribution will take a form that isn’t readily codifiable into a definite work-role. The abled, with certain exceptions, are not among those, and the system should recognise their privilege. Means-testing shouldn’t be demeaning; it should be seen as a form of respect.

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