Dying from Inequality – Why Universal Basic Income is the Solution


As the Covid-19 crisis looks set to devastate the economy, the arts ecology and disproportionately affect both disabled people and the self-employed, Diverse Critics writer Julie Farrell makes the case for Universal Basic Income as a means to lessen the impact of growing inequality.

A seventies tower block set against a blue sky

A London tower block. Photograph: GCampbellHall [licensed under CC BY 2.0]

‘It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first.’ Wrote George Orwell in his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). The peculiar lowness. These words powerfully convey the ever-present sinking feeling of poverty. It doesn’t level out. It doesn’t go away. You go fathoms deep but you keep on sinking.

If anything can wake us up to our own inequality crisis, it’s a global pandemic which threatens the very foundations of a capitalist economy that we are built on. The systemic injustices faced by the poor, disabled and elderly are now being faced collectively by the nation in the face of Covid-19 – and we’re waking up to the possibility of something better.

‘People living in the poorest, most disadvantaged communities face the highest risk of dying by suicide’, the Samaritans cited in their 2017 report, Dying from Inequality. They found that ‘financial instability and poverty can increase suicide risk.’ And that ‘Suicide is a major inequality issue.’ It comes as no surprise that unmanageable debt, unemployment, poor housing conditions, and other socioeconomic factors all contribute to high suicide rates. ‘Tackling inequality should be central to suicide prevention’ reads the report summary.

So how do we do that? In a world of systemic inequality, where poverty and homelessness have never been eradicated, the welfare state has become increasingly punitive – and workers are still punished for sickness – is equality even possible? In a world where the UK has seen suicide rates increase by 10.9% in the last year alone. Where thousands of low-skilled, but equally – if not more so – valuable workers are struggling to make ends meet, thanks to low wages and flimsy worker protections. The report addresses the factors which lead to poverty on a societal, community and individual level; with much emphasis placed on “weak social protection (especially inadequate employment benefits); poor (or non-existent) active labour market programmes; weak (or non-existent) employment protection; austerity measures; cuts in mental healthcare spending”.

A mixed race woman and two white women stand among packed shelves of food at a foodbank

Three women at a foodbank in Vauxhall. Photograph: Newfrontiers [licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Disabled people who find themselves reliant on government support to live have seen a drastic decrease in access to this support, and if they do receive it, bureaucratic processes cause months of delays, reduced payments and expedient recoup of payments with little to no warning. Just this year, Errol Graham died from starvation after his benefits were cut – his body was found by bailiff’s coming to evict him.

His needs were not understood nor adequately supported, Assistant Coroner Dr Elizabeth Didcock said: “The sudden loss of all income, and the threat of eviction that followed from it, will have caused huge distress and worry, and significant financial hardship… Likely, this loss of income, and housing, were the final and devastating stressors, that had a significant effect on his mental health… The safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society has holes in it.”

Tougher ‘fit to work’ assessments have now been linked to 590 additional suicides by the University of Liverpool. An average of 9,700 deaths are caused every year by living in a cold house, as Errol Graham did.  Homeless deaths have been steadily rising over the last couple of decades as have deaths from malnourishment.

The causes are intersectional. Living with chronic illness might make it harder for someone to work enough hours to pay the bills, but the government may deem them as ‘fit to work’ – with a huge impact on their mental health when they don’t receive support from the state. Older people may find their pensions aren’t sufficient to afford the cost of additional fuel to heat their homes through the winter. Disturbingly, 22% of the UK population are now living in poverty – 34% are children. The Trussell Trust is the largest food bank network in the UK – it handed out around 41,000 food packs in 2010 compared to 1.2 million in 2017.

One in three premature deaths in the UK is attributable to socioeconomic inequality.

There is one simple solution or at least a very good attempt at the beginnings of it – pay every individual a basic living wage. No matter what their situation. Lift the poor out of poverty. It’s not difficult to understand. It’s much cheaper to do this than to continue with the welfare state we currently have. No more bureaucracy, or administrative costs, or untrained and non-specialist staff assessing the medical needs of applicants.

A row of derelict shops with blue shutters down, alongside an overgrown grassy area

A row of closed shops. Photo: © Mat Fascione [cc-by-sa/2.0]

Close the gap which thousands of people are falling through.

We can learn from Denmark, where income disparity is considerably less, and the State pays two years UBI to any person who finds themselves unemployed, sick or wishing to re-train or up-skill.

It’s almost impossible to believe that in a progressive world, inequality still exists. More than that, is perpetuated by our governments not doing enough to eliminate it. A couple of years ago, at an event about UBI at Edinburgh International Book Festival, I listened to a discussion on the subject between a progressive policy think-tank director and two economists. The economists offered solid economic data from pilot studies (one rolled out in Scotland) as well as projected statistics, supporting the UBI model.

The think-tank director, in a manner straight out of a Tory politician’s handbook, kept asking, ‘where’s the money coming from? Are you going to pay more tax?’ When the economists had made it clear such a measure would be very achievable, he resorted the age-old, and damaging rhetoric, “Imagine it: 30% of the population depend on UBI. Maybe they’re students. They’ve left Uni and they’ve decided to sit and read books or watch daytime TV. It creates dependency at the lowest level of skill which is a huge political risk. It’s euthanizing those on lowest income.”

In the words of Orwell, ‘people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.’ Or rather, the rich like to tell the poor what’s good for them. Humans are afflicted by an unfathomable sense that one is of a higher morality or class than another, and that this makes them deserving of wealth. This misguided opinion is often left unchecked: oppression caused by socioeconomic disparity forces poorer people to collect in the same geographical pockets – out of sight, out of mind.  Racism is a huge problem in the UK and resultantly ethnic minority groups have higher rates of poverty than the average population.

A white man with a beany hat, sitting outside a jobcentre

A man outside a Jobcentre Photograph: © Andreas Andrews 2007.

There’s a show of misdirection going on, and it intensified following the 2008 crash, when the term ‘benefit fraud’ was lauded over claimants as a justification for a ruthless, point-scoring assessment process. We keep being told that there’s no money to implement a better benefits system, let alone UBI.  When facts contradict this, the narrative adapts and it becomes ‘no one wants to pay more taxes for that.’ It costs more to pay the caseworkers assessing those applying for Universal Credit – than it does to pay benefits to them.[1]

By 2016 there were five times as many benefit fraud investigators as tax evasion, when benefit fraud cost £1.3bn annually compared to the £35bn by tax evasion. It costs more now to run the current Benefits System than it would cost to pay those who need a UBI. The system deliberately punishes those most in need of help, whilst pointing the finger at them for bleeding taxpayers dry.

In the last two weeks, nearly one million people have applied for Universal Credit in the UK. They won’t see financial support for months. The government’s approach is all in the name of tackling immediate, Covid-19 related unemployment poverty. When in fact, it is being compounded by systemic, socioeconomic inequality. That is the unaddressed problem.

For centuries, the State has refused equality to its population. It’s a mindset; one largely influenced by the powers-that-be over the pond. When Bill Clinton was President, he repeatedly asserted “personal accountability” to those faced with damning inequality. No longer did we seek a perfect society, but an idea of a perfect individual. And if it’s the individual’s responsibility alone to earn an income, the state need owe them nothing. If we’re all personally accountable, then some of us are just ‘better’ than others. Never-mind privilege, education – luck. A democratic president telling the world that our wealth, success, education – health – was all down to our own accountability. The ‘special relationship’ that saturated the news saw its influences in the form of New Labour’s Third Way – a philosophy attempting to marry the left with the right – and the first tug at the wool over the eyes of the public.

It’s beginning to dawn on us that social and financial security, and wellbeing, should be the currency of our economy. Spain has just announced plans to roll out a UBI to tackle the Covid-19 crisis, and importantly, they are planning on making it a permanent structure. In Scotland, the SNP are making the case again that a UBI is the most sensible option for the UK, saying it would be “a key measure that could be continued for the long-term,” to ensure a fairer and stronger society. It has so far been met with the usual blustering rebuttal from the Treasury about improving the current benefits system.

Indeed, right now, capitalism is asking socialism to save it. We can only hope that in this time of community rallying, of sharing this catastrophic experience – that we realise our humanity is the singular commonality any of us has. This is what systemic, social and structural change should be built upon.

The article is published as part of the Diverse Critics programme, delivered in partnership with Creative Scotland and The Skinny.

[1] From ‘Crippled’ by Frances Ryan