Farewell to alms

Paper given at the Beyond Despondency – The UBI Alternative to the Welfare Meltdown Conference, Wellington,  New Zealand  26-28 March, 1998


Whether we are speaking about a Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI), a Guaranteed Adequate Income (GAI), a Negative Income Tax (NIT), a Universal Basic Income (UBI) or any other form of social payment which is available to all citizens, and hopefully all permanent residents, we are conceiving of a system of income support which in Lady Rhys-Williams'(1965, p. 163) words puts a floor below which income cannot fall without installing a ceiling beyond which income cannot rise.  In all these  schemes there is a universal right to apply for payment.  Under a UBI there would be a universal payment; whereas with GMI, GAI and NIT the amount of payment received by the individual would be in inverse relation to other income (and in some cases assets) received by that individual.  Some income guarantee schemes use the family, others the individual as the unit of income.

Much of the literature on the subject of income support has compared income guarantees with targeted social welfare payments.  There is a plethora of articles which have dealt with rights/obligations, stigma/or lack of it, work incentive/or work discouragement. Some writers (Gorz 1985, pp.40-47, Gorz and Jordan cited in Van Parijs,1992 p.24) have argued that a fixed number of hours work per lifetime should provide an entitlement to UBI.  Pixley (1993) opposed UBI because it would not ensure people were encouraged to work.  Cass (1995) was more circumspect in her opposition to UBI; she does not insist that income support be dependent upon peoples preparedness to seek employment;  she argues that eligibility rules should insist people become part of the ‘active society’.  Her ‘active society’ incorporates a wider definition of ‘making a productive contribution to the economy’ by engaging in education, training, employment or community service.

Robert Goodin (1992) has argued for a non-presumptuous income guarantee, that is one which requires no specific contribution by the individual.  Such a proposal is opposed by those on the right of the political spectrum because they claim it creates “dutiless rights”(Green 1996,  Selbourne 1994).  Such claims can be viewed as part of a citizenship debate or alternatively as integral to the worst of the welfare worthiness diatribe- either way such claims amount to an enunciation of the writer’s fear that somehow some ‘bludger’ is going to get something for nothing.  Those on the right are content to keep in place privileged windfalls as a result of birth, good luck and innate intelligence.  One of the personal features those on the right would include, as a basis for disproportionate rewards, is hard work (despite the fact that no poor person can get rich by working hard).

On the left there is a tendency to over glorify the importance of contribution / participation [in the current jargon of the faded pink ‘expanding the social capital’ (Cox 1995, Putnam 1993)].  Exactly how enforced participation in the ‘active society’, compelled employment, or meeting some vaguely defined ‘societal obligations’ in return for receiving a basic income improves the functioning of society is unclear.  Experiencing imposition / repression is unlikely to provide the best foundation from which to develop truly liberated citizens.

I share with Goodin (1992), Watts (1995) and several NZ UBI writers (Ritchie 1997, Bradford 1997, Rankin 1997, Goldsmith 1997) the desire to see introduced a universal income guarantee sufficient to sustain all individuals, at least in modest dignity, without attaching obligations to such a payments.  If, as I believe, people want to contribute to the welfare of the collective and through that participation they benefit, the task then becomes one of  removing obstacles to participation rather than compelling people to participate through fear of starvation.  For instance, the provision of affordable child care would allow many with young children the opportunity to participate more broadly in community life.

For too long, many of us in ‘human services’ have suspended our critique of the welfare state as we sought to defend it against the onslaught new right econocrats.  We need to resurrect and intensify our critique of the welfare state for its unnecessary complexity, targeting, constant repressive desire to compel, its ubiquitous search for the unworthy, its marginalisation/delegitimisation of those it calls worthy, and its failure to lift those it ‘assists’ out of poverty.  We need to discover a way to ensure the tax and income support systems receive “from each according to ability” and deliver “to each according to need.”

We need to look beyond the straightjacket of the market economists, reject the parsimony of the welfare state and confront the need for an adequate universal income guarantee not just to escape poverty but to enhance liberty and mutuality as we move towards solidarity and equality.

As those who have been involved in efforts to introduce universal income programs know there are no sound economic affordability arguments against their introduction but there are some major ideological obstacles which we need to surmount.  In this paper I discuss many of these obstacles which we encounter on both sides of the Tasman Sea.

Economic fundamentalism and politicians use of dependency rhetoric

There are some revealing linkages between politicians’ promotion of ‘need’ as the basis of receipt of income support from the state and their adoption of the jargon of economic fundamentalists.  For without the mystifying nomenclature of ‘self provision’, ‘user pays’ and ‘dependency’ to deflect the public’s attention from the real social wage issues, politicians might have to explain why they are not prepared to introduce a universal basic income.  The alleged ‘necessity’ of economic austerity has led to welfare cutbacks, targeting of benefits and redistribution of income of people from lower socio-economic levels to the rich.  

Since the days of the British Poor Law administrations some people without income have been refused help on the basis that “they were not worthy to gather up the crumbs from the rich man’s table”.  The modern welfare state’s reliance upon targeting (either in terms of the categories of those entitled to receive assistance or the eligibility rules which apply within a category) is simply a ploy to limit social welfare expenditure in a manner not dissimilar to the way ‘less eligibility’ has been employed since the 18 th century.

Hand in hand with the assault by economic fundamentalists on public provision of income support and services Australian and New Zealand Governments have promoted the expansion of privatised welfare.  They argue that private superannuation, private unemployment or sickness insurance and private medical insurance lifts an ‘intolerable burden’ from the shoulders of the tax payer.  Governments and economic fundamentalists in these two countries claim that those citizens who pay for such private programs are ‘self providers’ implying that those who don’t privately insure are bludgers on the system.  Many writers (ACTCOSS 1991, Pha 1992, Tomlinson 1995, McAulay 1993, Kelsey 1995) have pointed out these alleged ‘self providers’ receive massive poorly disguised tax-payer funded subsidies.  Such publicly funded handouts go, in the main, to those who least require assistance from the state.

A sleight of hand

Goebles, the head of Hitler’s propaganda machine, understood that it was very much easier to get people to believe the big lie than to accept smaller distortions of the truth. People entering debates tend to accept the context of debates with or without acknowledging that such contexts are set by powerful figures. They then bring their reasoning to bear on the elements of the debate rather than defiantly questioning the foundation on which the debate rests.  Marxists (Marx and Engles 1971, p.31) understand that prevailing ideologies cloud debate in the sense that powerful ideologies lead people to rule some ideas in and others out.  Gramsci (1977, pp. 53,170-172, 185-189, and 1978, pp. 233-235, 255-266, 443-459) developed the concept of ‘hegemony’ to explain the mechanisms by which the powerful ideas of the day constrain the limits of debate.  He suggested that hegemonic ideas tend to be accepted unquestionably whilst simultaneously making other ideas verboten.  Once we accept the earth is flat we know that if you go too far you’ll fall off the edge.

Building the welfare state

During the first 50 years of this century there were two world wars, a world wide depression, major technological changes and somehow in the midst of all this the perquisites of the existing elites came under challenge. Keynesian economics emerged and we witnessed the development of the modern welfare state.  Some socialists argued that the welfare state was the price of peace which the working class had extracted (Mandell 1975 ); others argued that the welfare state was a new form of containment (Cloward and Piven 1974, Piven & Cloward 1971, Galper 1975); whilst still others suggested it was both simultaneously (Gough 1979, p. 55, Miliband 1973, p. 242, Tomlinson 1989, Ch. 5 & 8).

In Australia, Britain and New Zealand the establishment of the presence of ‘need’ was the basis on which goods, services or cash were provided to the poor thus maintaining an intimate connection with the ideologies which informed the practices of the British Poor Law administrations.  Notions of worthiness and less eligibility pervade the administration of welfare.  Since the first decade of this century, there have been attempts in Australia to define categories of eligibility, for example: aged, widowhood and invalidity.  A person who could establish they met such criteria could (provided they were in impecunious circumstances) receive a payment. Yet to receive an age pension a claimant who met these other conditions still had to show that they were of ‘good moral character’.  Even as late as the early 1960s, when I worked for the Department of Social Services, alcoholics were refused an invalid pension on the grounds that they “..were not worthy to receive a pension.”  Married women with children who had “..been deserted without just cause” for 6 months provided they had taken and enforced maintenance action against their husband were eligible for a widows pension. But married men with dependent children in similar circumstances were not entitled to payment.  Nor were women with dependent children who had not received the nuptial blessing from a priest or registry official.

By the late 1970s all lone parents with dependent children who could establish they were not “..living in a bona fide domestic relationship” were eligible for support from the Federal Government.  Efforts to remove tests of virtuousness in relation to social security payments reached their zenith in the first term of the term of the Hawke Labor Government. This loosening of the charity belt had been a gradual process pursued by Labor and Liberal administrations from Chifley to Fraser.  The Fraser Government introduced for families a form of guaranteed minimum income the (Family Income Supplement) which the incoming Hawke Government expanded under the name of the Family Allowance Supplement.  We had finally reached a point in Australian social welfare where for families the absence of income was of itself sufficient grounds to justify the state providing income support.  Income security for families based simply on the absence of other income rather than some moral imperative had arrived on our shores.

The assessing of eligibility for unemployment benefits stood out as the area which retained all the old fears.  In order to receive a payment the applicant had to pass a work test establishing fitness, ability and readiness to work.  Applicants who were involved or whose union was involved in industrial disputation were rejected (Barwick 1997).  Despite the evidence that there were insufficient jobs available for all who wanted work governments behaved as if they believed there were thousands of ‘dole bludgers’ out there somewhere and they had to be found.  Every Australian government since federation has shared with British Poor Law administrators of earlier centuries an overwhelming fetish to compel the unemployed to work.

Despite the way it treated the unemployed, the Australian welfare state, though inordinately complex, had by the 1980s become quite comprehensive in coverage.  Ministers for Social Security repeatedly claimed that ‘no one in need through no fault of their own’ would be refused assistance.  This claim, of course, was exaggerated (Raper 1995).

The economic u-turn

In most developed English speaking countries the 1970s and 80s saw Keynesian economics gradually delegitimised by a resurrected form of economic fundamentalism.  After its emergence from the Economics Department of the University of Chicago, the economic ideology of the greedy took many names supply side economics, monetarism, economic liberalism and in Australian circles economic rationalism.  It was the ideological basis for the greedy to win back the gains made by the needy.

A central thrust of this ideology was that if the goal was increased productivity, then the rich had to be rewarded whilst the poor (read lazy) had to be coerced.  Altruism, cooperation, humanity, solidarity, empathy, equality, mutuality were derided and replaced with competition, survival of the fittest , downsizing, and market efficiency.  Welfare was an anathema to these free wheeling economic libertarians.  Whilst writers such as Castles (1985) had pointed out that, in Australia, we had established a ‘workers welfare state’ – the economic fundamentalists wanted the existing benefit system demolished, suggesting the poor would benefit in the long run as a result of a “trickle down effect”.  They ignored the fact that the poor still needed to eat every day.  That without other assistance a rising tide only lifts ships which are capable of floating and waders who are stuck in the mud, drown.  These econocrats were indifferent to the experience of every incontinent person who could have told them “their thighs are always wetter than their feet”.  As Jane Kelsey (1995) in New Zealand, Richard Titmuss (1976, pp.140-141) and Paul Omerod (1994) in Britain have shown that the rising tide of economic growth does not assist many confined to the lower levels of the labour market nor without other interventions does it assist those excluded from the labour market (Langmore & Quiggan 1994).  Only government apologists and economic fundamentalist ideologues ever believed that economic growth eventually assists everyone.  The most succinct critique was the slogan “Economic rationalism does not trickle down – it sux.”

The claims of the economic fundamentalists to have the answer to each and every question were extreme.  Not only were they experts in economic matters; but taking a lead from Adam Smith their intellectual mentor – whose writings they selectively read (Agyrous  & Stilwell 1996) – they claimed expertise on moral matters.  Their proposed solutions included leaving all questions to the unfettered ‘morality’ of the market.

Liberty became, for the economic fundamentalists, an extreme libertarian freedom. The individual was freed from all constraint by the collective so as to be able to exploit whoever and whatever for ever – subject only to market forces.  Gone was any concept of liberty as the freedom to achieve within parameters set by society and ecology.  Gone also was the concept that people, without adequate means of support, could have their security and liberty assisted as a result of receiving income support from the state.

The debate initiated by the economic fundamentalists raged on throughout the 1980s and 90s as if discussion of the need to remove the five giant obstacles:

  • want,
  • disease,
  • ignorance,
  • squalor, and
  • ignorance

which underpinned the construction of the modern British welfare state (Marshall 1979, p.84) had never occurred.

The interplay between economic fundamentalism and welfare

By the end of the 1980s, as Michael Pusey (1991) demonstrated, the senior ranks of the Australian Public Service had become dominated by right wing econocrats who spoke fluent managerialism.  They set about installing regimes where the user pays mentality, downsizing, and targeting welfare benefits became the order of the day.  Driven by a fear that someone might get something they were not entitled to or that a welfare recipient might refuse a job as a blood taster in an AIDS clinic they substantially increased the surveillance of the unemployed and lone parents.  Egged on by the then Minister for Social Security, Brian Howe, eligibility for payment of unemployment benefit was restricted.  In 1986, though more people were unemployed than in the previous year fewer applicants received unemployment benefits due to changes in eligibility conditions (Social Security 1987, p.99).

In a return to the 1960s, lone parents applying for income support were compelled to take and enforce maintenance payments against non-custodial parents.  Similar schemes prevailed in Britain and New Zealand.  The Tax Office became the collector of maintenance payments.  As governments in Britain, New Zealand and Australia found they had not the wit to find or create sufficient jobs for all who wanted work nor to share the available work amongst the entire labour force, they increased their attacks on the unemployed.  Governments are so determined to compel the unemployed to work they refuse to recognise that post industrial capitalism does not require all the available labour (Murray 1997). In New Zealand, as in Australia, the cutbacks of welfare benefits was begun by the Labour(Labor) Party.   New Zealand then elected a National Party Government which slashed welfare payments across the board.  Australia, under Labor and even a Howard Liberal Party, has simply reduced entitlements in a concerted relentless fashion.

.Still in 1998, Australia has retained much more of the social wage than has New Zealand.  This has been due to three factors:

  • neither the Hawke nor Keating Labor Governments set out to discipline the workless with anything like the alacrity of their New Zealand counterparts,
  • unlike New Zealand, by the time conservative forces captured the treasury benches, the public’s desire for a dose of radical ‘liberal’ economics had started to wane,
  • the Australian trade union movement remains more united and stronger than the New Zealand union movement.

However, the welfare state and the associated social wage in Australia has been diminished.  Coupled with the attack on the workless has been a reduction in the employment conditions of workers.  This was done under Labor in Australia through the accord. The incoming Howard Government opted for a more direct attack on working conditions, favoured by the conservatives in New Zealand, through implementing employment contract legislation.  Governments in Britain, New Zealand and Australia have recognised that unless the reserve army of labour is mobilised as a threat to those in work then a solidarity between workers and workless might develop.  The solution proposed by governments in both countries has been to reinstigate the 1930s ‘susso’ schemes which are compulsory work for the dole programs.

The ideological attractiveness of introducing compulsory work for the dole schemes derives from the economic fundamentalist desire to reward the rich and compel the poor.  The suggestion is made that under existing social demogrant type unemployment benefits the workless are claiming “dutiless rights” (Green 1996, Selbourne 1994).  In New Zealand, Social Welfare Minister Roger Sowry announced that he intends in 1998 to refocus social welfare policy “…away from rights and looking at responsibilities for the first time.” (The Jobs Letter 30/1/98).  Similar ideological pronouncements can be identified in the jargon of the Australian Prime Minister John Howard who claims social demogrants prevent the unemployed “being allowed the opportunity to demonstrate they are meeting their mutual obligations to the community”.  What they really mean is “dole bludgers are getting something for nothing”.

The political attraction of work for the dole to governments in these three countries is similar to that of the United States where ‘workfare’ schemes have been in place for a few years.  Ill informed voters object to their tax dollars being wasted on welfare recipients and the unemployed.  They either don’t know or refuse to acknowledge that creating workfare jobs lessens the demand for labour.  This process is called displacement.  They have little understanding that it might be their job which is displaced (Adams 1997). They don’t understand many of the subtleties of this complex issue: they are looking for a simple solution and they simply accept what their political masters tell them.  There is also an attractiveness in these schemes for the mean who feel that they are getting a return on their taxes by forcing the unemployed to work for a pittance, in one sense they are getting ‘something for nothing’ or next to nothing – well at least they are not paying directly for it.

The average voter is unaware that, in the United States, there are major industry contracts being let to companies which not only to use ‘workfare’ employees but also prison labour.  If such compelled labour does not take their job it might undercut their next contract to supply goods or services.  It is perplexing that voters who fear that welfare recipients and unemployed people might be ‘getting something for nothing’ support programs where the voters hope to ‘get something for nothing’ at the expense of the unemployed.

There is a further ideological attraction in compelling those without paid work to undertake work for the dole programs and that is, as Gorz warned us in 1985 (pp.34-38), it helps reinforce the expectation of full time work as the norm thereby ensuring the powerful “maintain the relations of domination based on the work ethic.” (p.35 italics in original).

The sick and disabled were, in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, initially excluded from many of the welfare cutbacks.  In more recent times their benefits have also been more tightly targeted.  In the name of equity and simplicity the payment rate for young people with a severe disability in Australia was drastically reduced under Labor.  The same style of econocrat double speak was utilised when Labor linked unemployment and student allowances.

In Britain, New Zealand and Australia, during the last three months of 1997 welfare and disability payments came under attack by governments.  The Blair (new right) Labour Party in Britain demonstrated its true colours when it substantially cut the payments to lone parents in December 1997.  This resulted in 47 of its members crossing the floor to vote against the Government. The planned cutbacks in disability payments saw the first resignation, in protest, by a Minister in the Blair Labour Government.  The stated reasons for cutting welfare payments or wages in these three countries have been economic necessity. Jane Kelsey (1995) points out that it was the alleged need for economic austerity, which in turn led to the economic cure in New Zealand, which resulted in many years of economic downturn and social disaster (Bradford 1997).  In Australia the economic miracle promised by the Hawke, Keating and Howard Governments has not yet achieved an unemployment rate under 8%.  Yet the Blair Government is setting out to cut welfare benefits in order to comply with the economic discipline ‘imposed’ on countries wishing to join the common European currency.  It is interesting that English speaking politicians always seem to find it easier to cut welfare expenditure than military expenditures or industry subsidies.

The recent nursing homes debate

Australia still has a head start when it comes to proving its economic fundamentalist credentials.  The blind obedience to economic dogma over humanitarian concerns or even smart political tactics was revealed, in the last quarter of 1997, by the way the Howard Liberal Government handled the changes to entry into nursing homes.

The Howard Government earlier in 1997 had used its numbers to overturn Northern Territory legislation allowing voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill people.  When the Howard Government came to decide the basis on which it would allow the frail aged to enter nursing homes it declared that adherence to a ‘user pays’ principle was all important.  Ignoring the fact that most people entering a nursing home die within six months (often within three), it determined that nursing homes could charge any fee they liked (one privately owned home was charging a $250,000 entry fee).  The Government also decreed that people with few assets other than a family home would have to sell it in order to enter a nursing home.  Many elderly became confused and depressed.  Two elderly people in Western Australia suicided leaving a note which linked their death to their uncertainty as to their capacity to be able to afford to enter a nursing home.  One wit at the time suggested that the Howard government was opposed to voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill but supported compulsory euthanasia for the frail aged who required nursing home care.

The present

In Britain, New Zealand and Australia the economic fundamentalists have had great success in redistributing income and wealth from the poor, the working and middle classes, to the rich and super rich (Stilwell 1993, Cassidy 1997, p. 24, Kelsey 1995). We have also seen some convergence in these countries in relation to welfare policies concerning unemployed people, lone parents and people with disabilities.  The language of conservatives in New Zealand and Australia is not very different from that of the Blair new right Labour Party in Britain.  Resonances of Rodgernomics in New Zealand, Thatcherism in Britain, Reganomics in the United States can be identified in the speeches of Labor’s Paul Keating or John Howard in Australia.  Shipley, Howard and Blair all utilise the dependency rhetoric when it falls to them to describe the behaviour of lone parents and the unemployed.  They claim the central issue in relation to welfare policies is the need to move people away from welfare ‘dependency’ to independence from welfare.

Each of these prime ministers is being disingenuous in attempting to suggest that they are really addressing the issue of: ‘dependence’ on welfare or independence from welfare. These prime ministers are attempting to mystify by engaging in this false debate.  They do this because they are not prepared to engage in the real welfare debate – the income security / insecurity debate.  This attempt to deflect attention from core welfare issues has not escaped the attention of poverty activists.  Early in 1997 at Massey University, the Auckland Peoples’ Centre sponsored an alternative conference to the New Zealand Government’s Beyond Dependency Conference.  The Peoples’ Centre Conference was entitled Beyond Poverty.  In October 1997, the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services published a discussion paper on work for the dole schemes in which they exposed many of the flaws in the ‘dependency’ arguments and went on to strongly reject the need to compel welfare recipients to work (Adams 1997).

Independence from welfare equates with aloneness or separation from a shared citizenship.  ‘Dependency’ equates with subjugation to the state or the welfare bureaucracy of the state.  The manner in which the ‘dependency’ debate is carried out in these three countries ignores the complexity of the debate: it allows no consideration of the desire of most people for reciprocity of contribution, mutuality, solidarity, cooperation, nor their desire for a shared humanity.   At the Beyond Poverty Conference I asserted that if ‘dependency’ was the real issue which governments were attempting to address they could abolish ‘dependency’ by introducing a non-presumptuous universal income guarantee (Tomlinson 1997).

Conservatives conduct the debate about ‘dependency’ from the standpoint of the stereotypical unidimensional fully self-serving economic ‘rational’ man (sic).  Feminists have long pointed to the fact that ‘dependency’ is seldom a desired state of being and this in part explains the desire of women to increase their participation in the paid workforce.  When it comes to welfare benefits many female lone parents find that “The state is a more jealous husband than the man the woman has just left.”(Glassman 1970, pp. 102-103).  It is true that those who have no alternative but to rely on income provided by the state depend on that income to survive.  But to extrapolate from this fact to suggest that reliance on publicly provided income ipso facto equates with ‘dependency’ stretches the logic of the argument to beyond breaking point.  Even if one were to accept that behavioural choices are dictated by self-serving ‘rational’ economic choices, there is a need to question why anyone behaving in a fully rational self-seeking manner would choose subjugation to the state’s welfare bureaucracy over aloneness or separation from the interference of welfare bureaucrats.

Clearly politicians in Australia and New Zealand have been impotent in their attempts to solve unemployment.  They have not had the wit to create sufficient jobs for all who want them, nor are they willing to shorten the working week so that the available work might be shared by the entire workforce.  They have been so intent upon ensuring less eligibility imbues the spirit of income support policies that they have not been prepared to put in place a secure income floor for all people.  They have been so preoccupied with the economic fundamentalist dogma that the poor need to be compelled to work, they have not looked for alternatives (Murray 1997).  On top of this they are conscious that the welfare budget is a big ticket item and have become so fearful that costs might escalate if they seriously addressed the issues facing poor people.  Politicians response has been to:

  • denigrate the poor with their ‘dependency’ rhetoric, and
  • employ economic fundamentalist mean minded tinkerings, such as  increased targeting and surveillance.

There are alternatives:

  • walk away from the repressive and outmoded insights which inspired the 1834 Poor Law legislation in Britain,
  • realise we are about to enter the 21 St. Century,
  • accept that there is no necessary link between work and income support, and
  • introduce a universal basic income which makes no presumption about people (Goodin 1992).


If our political leaders were not intent upon deflecting us from examining the real issues in income support they would discuss the way a universal basic income or even a guaranteed minimum income would free every citizen from ‘dependency’. After all, citizens enjoying their full entitlements provided by the state can hardly be described as ‘dependent’.  Rather they are simply asserting their right to receive income from the collective in much the same way as a shareholder relies on dividend income provided by private companies.  At its most basic, economic citizenship is a twofold process which requires the citizen to pay taxes in relation to income gained and to receive income in line with government distributional processes.  Citizens relying on the state to honour its commitment to them could only be described as ‘ dependent’ by those who deny the legitimacy of the state’s role in ensuring that all in a society are prevented from living in poverty.


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