The problem with existing systems of income support is not their conditionality but their presumption that only market participation is a legitimate contribution.
The Covid-19 pandemic has inspired much commentary about the world into which we want to re-emerge, and where to redraw the boundaries between market and state. It may have offered us a glimpse of the dynamics of large-scale change that will inform our future. Contemporary models of welfare capitalism are increasingly being questioned as to their fitness for purpose in providing for basic needs and their longer-term sustainability from an ecological perspective. And some things are clearer—including our interdependence on robust communities, public resources and strong states tempered by extensive citizen participation, co-creation and co-production.
Notwithstanding important differences among European welfare regimes concerning the degree to which they ‘commodify’ labour, all are essentially productivist: they attempt to reconcile social security with an agenda of economic growth and subsume welfare within production for the market. Labour-activation policies frame market participation as the primary pathway to inclusion.
The coronavirus has however loosened the grip of the market as the primary yardstick of value. Public attention on ‘essential workers’ has stirred critical reflection about the capacity of markets to provide key services and to value essential work. There is renewed recognition of ‘our dependence on our public-sector frontline workers’, as the Irish president, Michael D Higgins, has observed, and appreciation of public services not as economic burdens but as basic services ‘which must be placed outside the laws of the market’. Workers so frequently left behind by markets—nurses, postal and transport workers, supermarket cashiers and harvest labourers—have emerged as ‘titans underpinning our daily lives’.
In parallel, Covid-19 has brought environmental issues, and the relational and ecological costs of our patterns of market participation, into renewed focus. Calls for a new social contract and rediscovery of the ‘equalising power of the welfare state’ recognise that how we repair our economies and societies after the coronavirus is a political choice. The question is how to realign social security with patterns of participation which value essential work and sustain, rather than marginalise, activities of reproductive value.
In ‘bringing the state back in’, its nature and role is crucial. It must avoid placing punitive limits on individuals’ lives through conditionalities and sanctions and enable real freedom through a wider conception of income supports, which interact with services to enable people to live, work and care differently. One reform proposed is a participation income (PI) allied to universal basic services. This places the accent of welfare reform on decommodification—decoupling social security from market participation—rather than unconditionality.
UBI as panacea?
It is striking how universal basic income has been presented as ‘the answer to the inequalities’ exposed by the pandemic. Proponents of UBI range from Elon Musk to feminist Marxists, making it difficult to unpack the various ideological elements behind it. Key supporters frame UBI as utopian but realistic, while others dismiss it on grounds of affordability and its implications for public debt. Some feminists worry that UBI is being oversold as a panacea for the crises of work and care, while in the United States some progressives fear it may offer a neoliberal excuse to underfund public services. Related to this is the concern that UBI gets the currency of welfare wrong—focusing on income and what Amartya Sen would describe as the ‘commodity basis’ of welfare, rather than real freedoms to actually be and do certain things (his ‘capabilities’).
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UBI is often advocated on the grounds that it promotes agency and choice, offering ‘income, free from stigma, sanctions and control’. The relationship between universal income and agency is however not straightforward, as individuals with the same basic income can have very unequal thresholds of functioning and encounter different costs in meeting essential needs. This has led to a focus on universal basic services (UBS) as a ‘less flashy’ reform for reconfiguring the welfare state. At the heart of the concept of UBS, Anna Coote and Andrew Percy argue, is a mission to transform the way services are provided, to put people in control and to build a new role for the state to nurture such changes—ensuring equal access, distributing resources, setting and enforcing quality standards and co-ordinating services across different areas of need.
These different needs can be examined through related theories of wellbeing. The theory of human need of Ian Gough and Len Doyal establishes fundamental autonomy and health preconditions for individuals to realise the goals of wellbeing and social participation. It also specifies resources and conditions required to meet these needs, including food and water, housing, healthcare and education. Closely connected is Martha Nussbaum’s account of central human functional capabilities.
Both coalesce around universal conditions for human flourishing and set important limits on economic growth and development. Both follow Sen in arguing that economic production and consumption must always be appraised from the perspective of its contribution to meeting basic needs and promoting capabilities for flourishing—not as having intrinsic value. Both point to our moral obligation to constrain patterns of consumption and production within ecological limits to safeguard the needs of future generations as well as those of our fellow global citizens.
Recognising this ‘entails a different conception of the economy’. In place of the market economy as a system for producing, exchanging and consuming substitutable commodities according to price, the idea of a ‘foundational’ economy emerges, as a network of provisioning systems to satisfy a plurality of non-substitutable needs. While some of this may remain within the scope of the market, the framework of UBS provides guiding principles, and an evidence-based rationale, for collective provision based on access to services as of right, citizen participation, local control and diverse models of ownership—a combination which yields far better results than market transactions in terms of equity, efficiency, solidarity and sustainability.
Proponents of UBS are regularly dismissed as paternalist Fabians, but insist this is a more effective means of meeting basic needs than UBI. John Weeks sees UBI and UBS as complementary: UBI, informed by a ‘progressive liberalism’, is comfortable with market intervention while UBS, informed by social democracy, seeks to limit the role of markets in favour of social provision. Others however find the stress on liberal individualism versus ‘public sector paternalism’ less compatible. We would rather reframe this debate by offering participation income as an immediate guide to significant welfare reform which is complementary to UBS but might also, in the longer term, leave open the door to UBI.
The case for PI was first made by Tony Atkinson in the mid-1990s, as a compromise between the aspirations to a UBI and the emerging political acceptability of the ‘workfare’ model. It was developed by Robert Goodin as a middle ground between a post-productivist utopia of ‘welfare without work’ and a neoliberal dystopia of ‘work, not welfare’. Tony Fitzpatrick nuanced this as a post-employment (rather than post-work) ‘politics of time’, which seeks to nurture ‘multiple forms of valuable activity’.
Specifically, post-productivism seeks to recover time for activities which have reproductive value, such as giving care and sustaining the environment, which can never be fully valued in economic terms. Recognising time poverty and autonomy as central concerns, Fitzpatrick stresses the tensions in balancing time, work and income support, while feminists consistently draw attention to the need for time for care, for both men and women. Seeking a balance, PI would widen the range of activities and contributions recognised as socially useful ‘work’ and provide greater temporal autonomy for individuals to accommodate productive and reproductive time.
PI’s retention of an element of behavioural conditionality, be that to eligibility or entitlement, puts it in tension with the legitimate calls for autonomy at the heart of advocacy of UBI. While Atkinson perceived PI as a universal payment compatible with social insurance, other accounts allow the possibility of means-testing, further differentiating it from UBI.
Atkinson defends conditionality on grounds of political expedience. But it aligns normatively with principles of reciprocity and John Rawls’ idea of fairness in social co-operation: individuals have an obligation to share in its burdens as well as its benefits. Some have understood this to mean a duty to undertake paid work. A much richer understanding of reciprocity would however lead to decoupling conditionality from commodification, so as to nurture myriad socially valuable contributions in line with a capabilities-informed theory of agency.
In contrast to the current (work-related) activity-testing of income supports, PI would open-up the range and variety of options recognised as meaningful contributions. Examples could include participating in education, giving care and forms of voluntary work and political participation which contribute to social reproduction and satisfying essential needs unmet by the market. For example, PI could help co-ordinate environmental reproductive work. This aligns PI with the inherent value pluralism of a capabilities-informed theory of human need already detected in some European social-assistance programmes.
The 2015 Participation Act in the Netherlands, for example, requires claimants to meet social-participation requirements as a condition of receiving assistance. These can be fulfilled through paid work but also volunteering, further education and caregiving. In most instances, however, the range of participation options remains narrow, overly restricting freedom to choose between multiple socially valuable ‘doings’ and ‘beings’.
To avoid reducing PI to a restrictive payment with paternalistic conduct conditions, it needs to be carefully structured to enable participants to choose from wider combinations of contributions. This aligns with Ulrich Beck’s notion of ‘a multi-active’ society, in which social esteem and security are decoupled from employment and in which paid work features only as one form of socially accommodated activity alongside others—including caregiving, voluntary work and political activity. From a capabilities-enhancing social-policy perspective, ‘navigational agency’ emerges as an alternative to the employment orientation of current activation policies.
This means departing from an activation model excessively concerned with transitions from welfare to work. Instead, social policies must focus on enabling people to choose among (and to combine) employment, caregiving and modes of civil and political participation.
Unlike UBI, PI is not neutral about the distribution of care or silent about the importance of configuring welfare to recognise myriad forms of reproductive activity essential to sustaining the environment, civil society, democracy and other generations. If carefully configured, and set sufficiently high in conjunction with access to UBS—so basic needs can be met without reliance on the market—it provides a mechanism for incentivising participation in socially essential work while setting the welfare state upon an eco-social, post-productivist foundation.
Mary Murphy is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, Maynooth University (Dublin). She coedited The Irish Welfare state in the 21st Century: Challenges and Changes (Palgrave, 2016). She is a former member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and a current member of the Irish Council of State. Michael McGann is a Marie Curie-Sklodowska fellow at Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute. He leads a study, 'Governing Activation in Ireland', funded under the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.