Poll: Australians support a universal basic income

A recent YouGov poll commissioned by Unions NSW has found 49% of Australians support a universal basic income (UBI), with the remainder split between opposing or saying they do not know. The finding is a remarkable result for a policy radically outside the political mainstream.

Consider this: in a country with deep traditional antipathy to “dole bludgers”, half of Australians are prepared to support a policy of free government money for everyone, for nothing.

In addition, the poll found that UBI support correlated with education, with 57% of university graduates in favour of a UBI. Society’s education levels increase over time, so UBI sentiment is likely grow even more favourable.

These UBI findings are some of the most fascinating poll results I’ve seen. It would be interesting to have more details about what exactly responders saw leading up to the question. The UBI results are not played up in the Unions NSW report – understandably, as the UBI is not one of its preferred policies. In activist circles, the UBI is often juxtaposed against a jobs guarantee (JG), which is what Unions NSW prefer. Personally, I don’t understand why UBI and JG are treated as dichotomous, as one could support both policies, or neither.

The report emphasised the poll’s finding that 67% support a JG, an unsurprising result given Australians tend to answer positively to the concept of “jobs”. It’s a nice word. “Guarantee” is a nice word too. However, it is highly questionable whether the positive sentiment towards these words converts into support for any real-world policy.

The problem is that a “jobs guarantee” can mean very different things to different people, especially randoms who have never heard anything about the policy before.

There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of JG. For some, the JG is about helping the unemployed to self-actualise, but for others the attraction is setting the idle poor to task. By collapsing welfare and workfare impulses, the JG sucks in support from people imagining completely different programs. Obviously, this alliance can only be sustained as long as the JG stays at a linguistic level. Once the policy-maker supplies policy parameters, they will be declaring for one side and alienating the other.

Should the JG be entirely voluntary? Should it involve only things like picking up trash and digging ditches or should it involve arts, culture and personal expression? Will it involve dangerous work? Will it compete with existing employees, driving down wages? Can people be fired? Would they be endlessly employed without showing up? What if they have a mental health condition, for example, that seriously compromises their ability to show up and do the job? Having generous conditions is appealing to lefties, but at some point it will lose any resemblance to what normal people think of as a “job”.

Unfortunately the survey question did not help much here, as it did not ask for a response to a specific JG policy. According to Unions NSW on Twitter, a preamble to the JG question said that the policy “could” include the government providing jobs paid at least at minimum wage to people who cannot find one in the private sector, and making unpaid overtime illegal for jobs paying less than $100,000 a year. It would have been preferable for the survey to specify that the JG “would”, not “could”, provide government minimum wage jobs. Instead it effectively invites responders to imagine whatever policy details they like, within a broad umbrella that spans as far as reforms to unpaid overtime!

On the other hand, a UBI is intuitively understandable (cash for everyone!) and wears its most unpopular aspect – free money for doing nothing – on its sleeve.

Despite loading the dice in favour of the JG, the poll finds that 32% still prefer a UBI (56% say they prefer a JG).

Think over how radical this is: in an Australian political culture with a long history of intense animosity towards “dole blunders”, 32% of Australians would prefer the government pay an income to everyone for no work whatsoever than to implement a smaller scale program that tied income to work.

Again, there is nothing natural about this dichotomous framing. It is like asking people to declare whether they’d prefer investments in maternity services or cancer, and then using the result to justify pursuing only one of the two.

For what it’s worth, I do not support a JG and nor do I advocate for a conventional UBI. The more pressing priority is a generous system of unemployment benefits and other social security payments, without excessive activation requirements. Newstart must be increased and Work for the Dole abolished. From there, social security conditionality, including means testing, should be steadily reduced so the system promotes the freedom and self-actualisation of recipients and protects people across all socio-economic groups. As we head down this path towards social democratic utopia, the growing system of payments will evolve into a de facto guaranteed minimum income. Then we might consider joining up some of the programs and consolidating into a UBI. But this is a utopian goal.

However, there is one type of universal income that has merit in the more immediate term – a social dividend, an old idea but now most associated with Matt Bruenig’s Social Wealth Fund for America. This would involve the government managing a social wealth fund on behalf of its citizens, paying dividends to each citizen equally. The social dividend is universal but not “basic”, as it goes to all citizens but its purpose is not to provide a living allowance. What this kind of social dividend does is simply redistribute society’s capital income. The design is conceptually elegant and politically expedient: by targeting only capital rather than labour income, it evades the objection that universal income programs take from workers and give to non-workers. Under the social dividend, the income subject to redistribution was never being paid for work anyway. If passive, unearned income already goes to top 1%, why can’t we share it around? Moreover, the payments are not funded by a giant tax but from a massive investment in the market economy.

When it comes to universal income, I’ve always been a “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” kind of guy. But if the Unions NSW YouGov poll results are to be believed, I should be much, much more optimistic: Australians already support universal income.

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