Meet the Liveable Income Guarantee: a budget-ready proposal that would prevent unemployment benefits falling off a cliff



Ben Jeayes/Shutterstock

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland; Elise Klein, Australian National University, and Troy Henderson, University of Sydney

The economic crises that have punctuated the 21st century, most notably the global financial crisis and the COVID-19 crisis, have led to a growing realisation that alternatives to our present system are possible and perhaps inevitable.

In particular, there has been an erosion of the belief that the economy is able to provide a decent income to everyone who wants to work.

A number of proposals have been put forward in the wake of this realisation, among them

  • universal basic income, which would unconditionally provide every resident (children and adults) with a regular subsistence wage

  • a job guarantee in which the government would provide real jobs, at the minimum wage, to all unemployed Australians

Many seem utopian, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s good to look beyond the day-to-day to consider how things could be done differently.

In a new Australian National University Policy Brief we propose something practical, which we are calling a Liveable Income Guarantee (LIG).

Take the age pension..

It starts with one of the most successful institutions we’ve got: the age pension.

Before the age pension was introduced in 1908, retired Australians were highly likely to be poor. But now, on some measures, retired Australians are less likely to be in poverty than Australians of less than pension age.

Our proposal is to replicate this success for the entire population.

We are proposing a payment equal to the pension, and subject to the same asset and income tests, that would be provided to everyone who is willing to make a contribution to society consistent with their ability to do so.

…extend it to others

“Contribution” would be defined broadly to maximise contributions. Examples would include full-time study, volunteering, caring for children, ecological care, and starting a small business.

The biggest shift relates to the treatment of unemployed workers and single parents.

JobSeeker is set to return to the unliveable rates of the former Newstart after the end of December.

We are suggesting that instead it be lifted to the rate of the age pension, which is about where it used to be before unemployment benefits were frozen in real terms in the 1990s.


Newstart versus the age pension

Dollars per fortnight, single.
Source: Ben Phillips ANU, DSS

Parenting Payments have also been notoriously low, especially for single parents, whose support has been cut consecutively by five prime ministers from Howard to Turnbull.

Unlike some proposals for a universal payment to all citizens, the increased expenditure required for the liveable income guarantee would be relatively modest, as little as A$20 billion a year.

Do it for the price of tax cuts…

This is roughly comparable to the budget cost of the income tax cuts, primarily directed to high earners, legislated to take effect in 2022 and 2024.

The real barriers to the adoption of the proposal are ideological. The central assumption underlying economic policy in Australia has been that in a market economy everyone who wants a decent job is capable getting one.

It has followed that the unemployed are seen as either unwilling to work or suffering from particular deficits that need to be remedied by training and job readiness programs case by case.




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Over the first two decades of this century, it has become evident this assumption is incorrect. The global financial crisis and the subsequent swing to austerity produced sustained high unemployment in much of the developed world.

While Australia avoided the worst consequences thanks to well-timed stimulus (here and in China) the unemployment rate has failed to fall below 5% as underemployment has climbed for more than a decade.

Any prospect of a rapid return to full employment have been dashed by the pandemic.




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Longer term it is clear that many existing jobs will disappear as a result of technological change, and it isn’t clear that our current institutions will be able to manage the process.

While governments should commit to a return to full employment, they are unlikely to be completely successful.

Ready us for the future

The implementation of a liveable income guarantee would allow us to be better prepared in case they are not and to be better prepared for future disruptions, be they pandemics or anything else.

On the brighter side, technological progress has increased our productive capacity to the point where we can afford to support a much wider range of non-market contributions to a market economy. The crisis has shown us how important many of those contributions are.

Looking beyond the crisis, it is possible (relatively simple) to create a society in which everyone has a decent standard of living, and no one is excluded.

Providing dignity to everyone who makes a contribution would benefit us all.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland; Elise Klein, Senior Lecturer, Australian National University, and Troy Henderson, Lecturer in Political Economy, University of Sydney, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Forget JobSeeker. In our post-COVID economy, Australia needs a ‘liveable income guarantee’ instead



Kelly Barnes/ AAP

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland; Elise Klein, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and Troy Henderson, University of Sydney

There are now less than three months to go before the expanded JobSeeker payment is due to end.

As a result, there is a growing political debate about what should happen to the unemployment payment that was roughly doubled in April.




Read more:
How to improve JobKeeper (hint: it would help not to pay businesses late)


While the government is reportedly considering a revamp of both the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments, we believe a much broader rethink is needed of the way we provide income support to people without a market income.

Instead of an unemployment payment – or the dole – we need a liveable income guarantee.

‘Snapback’ is not going to happen

It’s increasingly clear a “snapback” to the pre-pandemic way of doing things is not realistic.

Unemployment has jumped under coronavirus.
Stefan Postles/AAP

The recent upsurge in coronavirus cases reminds us the new normal will see all sorts of economic and social activity constrained and subject to sudden lockdowns.

As a June Grattan Institute report has also shown, we need more fiscal stimulus, not a return to pre-pandemic fixations on debt and deficits.

On top of this, we have also seen grim announcements of job cuts at Qantas, the sale of Virgin and other well-known brands collapsing. Many smaller businesses will follow their lead.

Thousands of hardworking Australians, many of whom have never been unemployed before, will be thrown out of work – some of them for a long time.

We need a new unemployment system for a new reality

The system of unemployment benefits that was in place before COVID-19 worked on the assumption there were plenty of jobs for anyone capable of filling them.

Unemployment was therefore seen as reflecting personal defects – either unwillingness to work or, more charitably, a lack of particular skills needed for “job readiness”.




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This assumption was clearly untrue, even before the pandemic. As the long history of booms, busts and economic crises have shown us, all workers are vulnerable to losing their job through no fault of their own.

There aren’t jobs for everyone

The failure of labour markets to provide full employment is also seen in the increasing levels of underemployment, particularly among young people.

Underemployed workers are, by definition, willing and able to work, and ineligible for unemployment benefits. But they are nonetheless unable to secure a full-time job.

Young people are increasingly underemployed.
http://www.shutterstock.com

For an unacceptably high proportion of young people, the experience of the labour market has been one of stringing together part-time gigs, while trying unsuccessfully to start a career. Official measures of youth unemployment hit 16% in May. A further 25.8% of young Australians between 15 and 24 years old were underemployed.

We need to do something different

Even before coronavirus, there was a pressing need to reform the way we support unemployed people.

JobSeeker (or its predecessor, Newstart), had not been increased in real terms since 1994. Business, community groups and researchers were among the loud chorus pushing for an increase to the payment which, on average, is about A$45.50 a day.




Read more:
When the Coronavirus Supplement stops, JobSeeker needs to increase by $185 a week


But to respond to the post-pandemic era, we need to make more comprehensive changes to the way we support unemployed and underemployed Australians, that acknowledge the scarcity of jobs.

A liveable income guarantee

Moving forward, we should adopt the concept of a liveable income guarantee or living wage. The living wage is closely linked to the idea of participation – starting from the principle everyone has a right to a liveable income and a responsibility to contribute to society.

Ideas of this kind, under names including “universal basic income”, “guaranteed minimum income” and “participation income” have been discussed since the 1960s.

They have attracted more attention in recent years as the failure of the current economic system to deliver full employment and broad improvements in living standards has become more apparent.

How would a liveable income guarantee work?

Many people already productively contribute to society in different ways, such as caring, but their work is largely obscured by the narrow measure of formal employment.

The social security system only partially supports those unable to work due to age, disability, unemployment, or caring needs. And support for all of these categories has been cut back and subjected to conditionality under successive governments, operating on the ideology of market liberalism.




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There are many possibilities of what contributions could be included and “paid for” under a liveable income guarantee. Most of them have some precedent, but have not been considered as part of a comprehensive program of social participation. The options include:

  • volunteering in support of organisations and causes
  • work on grant-funded community projects
  • support for beginning small businesses
  • ecological care projects
  • artistic and creative activity
  • full-time study.

All of these productive activities should be given the same terms, income and assets test as the pension.

Including supplements, a single pensioner currently receives up to $944.30 per fortnight. This is paid to the aged, people with disability and carers.

Without the Coronavirus Supplement, a single person on the JobSeeker Payment receives $574.50 a fortnight (including the Energy Supplement).

How to pay for a living wage

We estimate the annual cost of a policy along the lines suggested above would be less than $30 billion. About $10 billion a year would be needed to set all benefits equal to the age pension. The cost of expanded eligibility for the liveable income guarantee is harder to estimate, but unlikely to be more than $20 billion a year.

Most of this could be financed simply by forgoing the tax cuts for high income earners legislated by the Morrison government after it won the 2019 election.

The welfare system should be more like the tax system

When it comes to government checks on people’s participation in their chosen community activities, we need to look to the tax system.

Currently the welfare system imposes strict compliance rules to prevent cheating at the outset. By contrast, the tax system is operated on the basis of self-assessment.

Taxpayer declarations are assumed to be true in the first instance, but subject to auditing. The liveable income guarantee should operate like this, where people submit their own participation declaration, as we do with our tax returns.

The welfare system could operate more like the tax system when it comes to self-reporting.
James Gourley/AAP

Looking ahead, we need to focus on cooperation rather than competition.

This means giving everyone the opportunity to contribute to society, whether or not they generate a market income. A liveable income guarantee will be a crucial step towards this goal.


This article was the product of discussion among a group that also included author Tim Dunlop, Western Sydney University emeritus professor Jane Goodall and QUT senior lecturer Dr Jenni Mays.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland; Elise Klein, Senior Lecturer, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and Troy Henderson, Lecturer in Political Economy, University of Sydney, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.