Was Jesus in favour of a Universal Basic Income?
I recently sat in on a Citizens UK training Zoom meeting about campaigning during the current pandemic. In a breakout ‘room’ about 30 of us listened to Mike Pugh talk about the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). He was very enthusiastic and enthused those who had joined this breakout group – with plenty of interaction by way of questions using the chat facility in Zoom. The concept is to give every adult a weekly income of between £60 to £100. This would not replace other benefits -though there might be some level of change in what is offered. Even £100 per week is not enough for people to live on – so it is not a replacement for working. –
This was a session that was specifically aimed at people in faith communities who campaign on issues of social justice. So, why should we be interested in the idea of a Universal Basic income – what has this to do with Christianity?
I could go on about the ‘dignity’ that every person has through being part of God’s creation. However, I also think that the Gospel parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) is a relevant one. The vineyard owner goes early in the morning to the marketplace to hire day labourers – or, in our terms, zero contract hours workers. He offers them one denarius a day (which is what Roman soldiers were paid for a day – and the people listening would know that this was a generous amount to be paid). He does the same thing at various points in the day – including when there was only a short time available to work. He pays them all the same amount.
This is where we get stuck on the seeming injustice of paying those who have been working since daybreak the same amount as those who have only been working an hour or two. How can it be right to pay these feckless people who have only done an hour or two’s work the same amount as those who started at the crack of dawn? I think we have to see it through the eyes of the people of the time. Who are these people hanging around in the late afternoon and still available for work? Clearly, they are the people who no one wants to hire – those who are old, or with some form of infirmity that means they will not be able to work as productively as those hired early in the morning.
But why pay these latter the same amount? I’ve seen various suggestions as to how much they were all paid- but most scholars seem agreed that the daily amount was enough to feed yourself and probably your dependents. In other words the vineyard owner does not offer the minimum wage but a real living wage – or you could even term it a ‘family wage’ (or ‘household wage’). Giving everyone the same amount – and an amount that is enough to keep going – sounds pretty close to a UBI story of the times.
Just like the UBI proposals outlined in the UK Citizens session, it would not cover all your living expenses but would be enough to stop you from going under. The ideas behind a Universal Basic Income need much more working out. However, it was pointed out that where small experiments had been tried it was found that nearly everyone used the money ‘responsibly’ (however you want to define that) and that it was no disincentive to doing paid work. What it did do was to give people some choices – and lack of choice is one of the defining characteristics of poverty and an inability to live out our lives with our God-given dignity.
Coronavirus has made many people think and comment about a ‘new normal’ once the pandemic is properly under control. For many reasons, Universal Basic Income is a good candidate for what would make for a ‘New Normal’ and a mor