Reflections on the potential to pilot UBI and reduce homelessness, following a roundtable discussion in Manchester.
Author: Simon Duffy
I was delighted to be asked by the Mayor’s Greater Manchester Charity and UBI Lab Manchester to talk at a recent roundtable event on the relevance of Universal Basic Income (UBI) to the problem of homelessness.
I have attached the slides from my talk below and I will not repeat the body of the talk here. But in summary I argued that UBI is relevant to reducing homelessness in two slightly different ways:
Figure: How UBI can help reduce homelessness
Of course UBI, as the full transformation of our current system of social security, is not going to happen today. Even Manchester has no power to overhaul the UK benefit system. The current system, run from London, is full of sanctions, means-testing, stigma and income levels that are set far too low. The current English government is ideologically committed to using poverty as a tool of social control; food banks are one of the few growth industries in modern Britain and UBI represents the kind of humane, rights-based approach to social policy the current establishment rejects.
However there is strong support for developing UBI solutions outside England: the Scottish government wants to run a major pilot, the Welsh government is now running a pilot and a pilot is being developed for Northern Ireland. The UBI Lab Network was born in the North and I suspect that if the North had freedom from Whitehall it would also be implementing radical reforms.
And times are changing. Since the 1970s the people in the UK have suffered from increasing levels of inequality, debt, stigma and everyday bureaucratic interference. The architects of neoliberalism promised that these changes would be beneficial, but the evidence is in. For over 40 years of neoliberalism have not improved people’s lives; it has not even improved the economy.
The UK’s economy is a mess. Inequality and discrimination is rife. Many can now expect their lives to be shorter than earlier generation as life expectancy, health, insecurity and real living standards worsen.
We can prove neoliberalism doesn’t work; but the challenge is now to build the alternative. This is what we are trying to do at Citizen Network, UBI Lab Network and the Citizen's Basic Income Trust: to grow the understanding, evidence and social movement to make basic income a reality.
Of course, we needs more than than just the introduction of basic income. So it was encouraging the commitment to wider changes by those involved in the roundtable discussion in Manchester. There is the increasing recognition by public services that they need to change how they work. They need to support people’s agency and their desire for a life of meaning. The passion for this change came through strongly as I listened to the contributions from the many people working on homelessness in Manchester. Some of the things I heard included:
There is clearly a desire, right across Manchester, to build a new approach which respects the individuality of everyone who is homeless or threatened by homelessness. This is exactly the same spirit that burns within the movement for basic income.
At a personal level I was also really pleased to see how widespread the use of personal budgets in the housing sector had become. This is a concept I have championed for 30 years, and it remains a big part of my work, especially outside the UK. I had been aware of the 2009 City of London pilot that pioneered the application of personal budgets for people who are homeless; but I had no idea that the idea has spread and is now being widely applied in housing support services.
It would be interesting to better connect the work on personal budgets (or direct cash transfers) to the work on UBI. These are truly sister reforms, both committed to combatting injustice, ensuring people have the power to change their circumstances in the way that makes most sense to them, while fostering respectful relationships between people and professionals—professionals certainly do not always know best, but working together can be more powerful than working alone.
In preparing for the talk I was lucky enough to get support from Scott Santens, the world’s leading advocate of UBI. Scott alerted me to a whole new wave of UBI pilots and research projects, focusing on people at risk of homelessness. In California, Denver and Chicago new projects have been established. Some are much more than pilots, they are systemic reforms. Interestingly, whereas personal budget emerged out of efforts to reform social services, these new US reforms, while similar in practice, are conceived as basic income reforms.
For people interested in this work this my list so far of UBI and homelessness projects:
This all makes me think that it would be well worth taking stock of what we’ve achieved and what we’ve already learned. In addition to doing new pilots or creating new programmes we could build on the achievements of these earlier reforms. Perhaps we are making more progress on UBI than we realise in the UK - if we start to treat these older public service reforms as forms of early basic income reforms. Perhaps we can look at some of the evidence we already have on the success of personal budgets with new eyes.
For Manchester there are many positive possibilities if we think broadly about the application of basic income principles to help end homelessness:
I’d encourage anyone interested in these ideas to get in touch with the UBI Lab Network.
In addition you might also like to join the SDS Network where we are sharing learning on self-directed support and personal budgets.
The current situation is unacceptable. We have the resources to end homelessness and to end poverty. We just need the will to make it happen.
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The publisher is Citizen Network Research. UBI and Homelessness © Simon Duffy 2023.