The pandemic has brought ideas such as universal basic income into the mainstream, but how might they work in practice?
The New Zealand government won international plaudits for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Acting swiftly and taking strict measures such as closing borders have helped to keep the death toll from the coronavirus at just 22.
Perhaps coincidentally, New Zealand is also one of a handful of Wellbeing Economy Governments – a group of countries that share expertise on how to put the health and wellbeing of people and the natural world alongside economic growth as the aim of policy making. Other members of the partnership include Scotland, Wales and Iceland.
Politicians making mental health a priority, or pushing access to parks as an important issue, may seem radically different to the status quo but unprecedented crises call for new solutions.
According to Stewart Wallis, the chair of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a global network promoting change in economic systems, the coronavirus crisis has created a “major opportunity” for leaders to shift focus away from just growth and onto wellbeing measures.
Speaking at a recent roundtable discussion, he added that many more countries are set to join the alliance. There’s public support, too: in the UK, a YouGov poll in May found that 60 per cent of respondents want the government to prioritise health and wellbeing of citizens ahead of economic growth after the pandemic has subsided.
What might that look like in practice? One idea that’s moving from fringes to the mainstream is universal basic income, whereby base payments are made to every citizen in the country, regardless of their employment or financial status. With governments covering the wages of millions of furloughed people, such a radical measure no longer seems out of reach.
In May, researchers at the University of Helsinki published a long-awaited report examining the results of a basic income trial in Finland. Running throughout 2017 and 2018, the study tracked 2,000 unemployed people aged 25-58 who received a basic income of €560 (£495) per month.
The results: the wellbeing of people receiving the basic income was better than those in the control group. A survey at the end of the study showed that the test group had fewer health problems, lower stress levels and could concentrate better. Some participants took the opportunity to spend more time caring for loved ones or volunteering.
Although the Finland trial is not without criticism, its findings have added more weight to a swelling argument in favour of a basic income. “What will start to be asked [after the pandemic] is what happens next time? This isn’t going to be the last crisis,” says Malcolm Torry, an economist and chair of the Citizens’ Basic Income Trust, which argues for basic income. “There aren’t many answers, but citizens’ basic income is one of them.”
Torry has the unenviable job of pouring through all the tax and welfare codes to simulate a hypothetical, revenue-neutral basic income that would be paid to everyone (some people would continue to receive existing benefits). The magic figure? £60 per week.
“It’s not going to change people’s lives overnight,” he admits. The top earners probably wouldn’t be any better off because they would be paying more tax and the tax-free threshold would have to come down, he adds. But under his modelling, low-income households could benefit to the tune of several hundred pounds a month. He adds: “It’s a limited piece of utopia that would actually work. The real answer is that until we try it, we won’t know.”
It’s a limited piece of utopia that would actually work
According to a report published in May by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the current welfare system in the UK is highly unlikely to survive the coronavirus crisis. Dr Stephen Davies, head of education at the IEA, argues that the crisis will strengthen support for a universal basic income and could provide “the impetus for radical change”.
The crisis has opened the door for other bold steps to help the most vulnerable in society, too. After an estimated 90 per cent of rough sleepers were housed in hotels or temporary accommodation during the lockdown, charities and campaigners have been putting pressure on government to seize the opportunity to keep people off the streets long-term.
Jeremy Gray, CEO of homelessness charity Evolve Housing, says the pandemic has shown what’s possible, “with a bit of will and money and people working together”. He highlights the government’s rough sleeping taskforce as a sign of positive change. Announced in May, the group is being led by Dame Louise Casey, who helped reduce rough sleeping by two thirds between 1999 and 2001. “It worked then and there’s no reason it can’t work again,” says Gray.
Organisations such as Evolve Housing, which offers accommodation alongside services to meet other needs of people experiencing homelessness, are well placed to provide longer-term support. However, Gray says, the challenge is capacity.
Some towns have taken matters into their own hands. Northampton’s Single Homelessness Forum is working with landlords to find permanent homes for the 90 people it moved into hotels. The aim, according to its chair Reverend Sue Faulkner, is to make sure that “no-one will fall through the cracks”.
In social care, another sector struggling from years of chronic underfunding, the crisis has highlighted the invaluable contribution of its workers. Ruth Hannan, transform programme manager at the RSA, a leading arts charity, points to organisations such as Shared Lives, Community Circles and Wellbeing Teams for examples of social care that allow people using the services not just to survive, but thrive.
Wellbeing Teams, for example, takes its cue from the successful Buurtzorg scheme in the Netherlands, where nurses work in self-managed teams to improve the home care they offer to people. These organisations are already showing ways forward that allow even the most marginalised and vulnerable in society to live better.
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A bill currently in parliament would force businesses and public bodies to protect the interests of young people and citizens of tomorrow. The Wellbeing of Future Generations bill also aims to establish a Commissioner for Future Generations for the whole of the UK, building on the successes of Sophie Howe, who holds the position in Wales.
The New Zealand government made improving the nation’s mental health a key spending priority in its first wellbeing budget, released in 2019. Some NZ$1.9bn (£960m) was allocated for mental health, including funding for new treatment facilities and for its Housing First programme to tackle homelessness.
Making sure people have easy access to nature and green spaces is a common feature of wellbeing-first policies. In Utrecht, Netherlands, authorities committed to improving ecoystsems in the city and saw a 24 per cent rise in green space per household as a result. Mapping green spaces confirmed they were easily accessible from anywhere in the city.
Main image: Thiago Cerqueira
Illustrations: Stephen Cheetham