The Universal Basic Income’s time has come – Ewan Aitken

More families will be at risk of slipping into poverty as the lokdown continuesMore families will be at risk of slipping into poverty as the lokdown continues
More families will be at risk of slipping into poverty as the lokdown continues
The coronavirus crisis has given us chance to look again at the way we organise society and the first task is to alleviate the damaging effects of poverty, writes Ewan Aitken

This crisis is hard work. No matter who you are or what your situation is, it’s hard work physically, mentally and emotionally. At Cyrenians we have been shifting 50 tonnes of food a day through our Fareshare operation (five times our normal quantities) and producing up 1000 meals a day, seven days a week from our cook school kitchens with volunteer chefs helping our amazing team.

We are supporting rough sleepers in hotels, families in conflict, the residents in our communities, people coping with addiction, families with someone in prison, people struggling with mental health challenges, young people having difficulties with school, people trying to get into work and many more; all while managing with the restrictions of lockdown. This crisis is hard work, but for some it is really tough.

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One project we have begun is a partnership with Waverly Care to use some of their beds at their Milestone House facility as intermediary care unit for homeless patients recovering from Covid-19 who require ongoing medical care due to underlying health conditions.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians ScotlandEwan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland
Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

The virus might be their presenting cause but the needs of this group of our fellow citizens go much deeper so supporting them is much more of a challenge.

My thanks go to the lovely people at Waverley Care for stepping up as they so often do. But this project, led by our hospital inreach team who have completely changed their way of working, innovation being in Cyrenians’ DNA, is a sharp reminder of the more deep-rooted issues which have been exposed by this crisis that need more than a short term fix.

We already know that those in poverty, on the edge of society with fewest resources are most harmed by the impact of this crisis. And all the work we and so many others are doing to meet the needs that have been exposed is simply not enough.

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Nor can we and those like us keep going at the rate we are going. The solutions we need to see must be system-changing, not system-saving.

High on the list must be the alleviation of poverty. We know demand for our service will grow as we come out of this crisis because of increased unemployment, more people losing their homes, more people unable to manage their debts, greater impact of mental health challenges, more relationships breaking down; all of which means many more people entering not just poverty but destitution. We need collectively to think big and think brave.

One approach is the idea of a universal basic income; where the government pays everyone a monthly sum to cover basic needs, no matter their circumstances.

It might seem strange to pay the richest people government cash but they will be still paying considerably more in tax than they receive, while those in greatest need would know every month that they have an income which can keep them fed, clothed and pay the rent. The security of knowing this has a value way beyond the cash involved. It means they can concentrate on what it takes to manage and move on from their situation.

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The universal nature overcomes the biggest problem of a targeted benefit system, which is that it rarely meets its targets and costs a huge amount to be so inefficient. Those with lifetime support needs can access additional help as they do now. But the vast majority of the benefit system would go; the value, not just in cash saved but in reduced stress, stigma and much more would change not just lives but society as a whole.

The crisis has exposed our interdependency. The system as it is now does not support our individual and collective needs. Universal Basic Income is a system-changing way of shared support and care where everyone is treated equally. It is an idea whose time has come for a just society with compassion at its core.

Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

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