*Spoiler Alert. “I am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less”, are the final words of Ken Loach’s modern masterpiece, I, Daniel Blake.
Some have decried it as ‘povvo voyeurism’, ‘depressing’, ‘dreary’, or a social conscience for ‘luvvies’. How dare Loach intrude on the relentless victimisation of those on benefits. How dare he force us to look at the system as is. Couldn’t it have had some good tunes and a happy end? Maybe it could have been Les Mis with a disco beat and happy ending. But he chose to tell a brutal story; one that is unfortunately entirely plausible. Look away quick. Head, sand, bury.
The film comes at a time of increasing interest in Basic Income (including a Basic Income parliamentary inquiry announced last week) – in part to replace precisely the type of dismal bureaucracy that the welfare state has been developed into. That is why the ‘citizen’ line is so resonant. The more traditional name for a Basic Income is a Citizen’s Income. What difference would a Basic Income make to the lives of the film’s main characters, Daniel, Katie and her two children, Daisy and Dylan? The answer is an enormous amount.
At first glance Basic Income would seem to offer little. Let’s set it at a modest rate of £75 per person including children (one would hope that over time it would become more than that and eliminate the need for Employment Support Allowance altogether). Daniel’s Basic Income would be £75 which is the same as JSA (I’m deliberately keeping it simple for illustrative purposes). Full Employment Support Allowance for the ‘support’ group which Daniel was applying for is £110 (the additional support is actually £36.20 but as I say I’m keeping things simple). Under Basic Income, Daniel would still have to apply for the additional sum (Basic Income would not replace all disability benefits at a £75 level). So the chance for the type of error that started his nightmare to occur would still be present. So no better off then? Wait, a moment.
Firstly, none of what subsequently happened to Daniel could happen under Basic Income. He would have it and it would be his right as a citizen. He could recover and wait for his ESA appeal. He would not be relentlessly humiliated in the local Job Centre. During his convalescence, he could continue his carpentry and might even decide to earn a little extra cash by selling the odd bookcase. It might turn into a decent little additional income and he wouldn’t have to answer to anyone for it- as long as he paid his taxes. He would not be patronised, humiliated, sanctioned and he would not have had to sell his own furniture for cash in hand. Something else would be very different too - and I’ll come back to that.
In Katie’s case, Basic Income would make a significant difference. Her family income would be £225 per week (with housing support on top). That is tough and a subsistence – and not greatly different to what she is entitled to now – but it would be hers as of right. There would be no sanction and the downward spiral that flowed from that arbitrary decision. She could have avoided the foodbank. A small thing but it would be a massive dose of dignity.
She would have some stability though her homelessness situation in London may have been just as chronic – that is a consequence of the abject failure of housing policy. Sorting out a Basic Income and having a sane housing policy are not mutually exclusive; they are in fact mutually dependent in many ways. Her life would still be tough but she would have a more stable base and a greater sense of agency. That could make all the difference. It might even give her enough stability to pick up her books again. She clearly wants to work and the additional security would help her do that once the kids were settled at school.
There’s a third group of protagonists in the film. And that is the Job Centre Plus staff. Basic Income would be transformative for them. Instead of being the frontline of a vexing, dehumanising bureaucracy, their role would be to provide proactive support. The default setting would not be to assume that everyone walking into the centre was a potential free-rider. People would trust rather than fear them – Daniel might have even felt that he could ask for help with IT skills rather than being bullied into using a computer to meet “digital by default” bureaucratic requirements. The compassionate and the passionate advisers would thrive; power would be taken away from those likely to abuse it.
And that’s the ultimate point. Basic Income is a new social contract with a more just power dynamic. Currently, the state holds all the cards. It uses them with some hideous consequences. Daniel Blake and Katie may be extreme cases. But there are many in similar situations (look at the expansion of foodbanks and the success rate of ESA appeals if you don’t believe me).
Marginal cases reveal systemic failure. Black men getting shot by US cops is a marginal occurrence but it happens with a regularity that demonstrates a system out of control. We are dealing with a welfare state that is a systemic failure and that is not just because of poor management. It is the underlying logic of the system- that people are not to be trusted and are incapable of managing their own lives. So we’ve built what Hannah Arendt might describe as a ‘banal’ bureaucracy to deal with that.
Basic Income would reset this. It is based on a different logic – people can make a more fulsome contribution when they have a secure base. And that is why it is possible if not probable that Basic Income would change the disability support system too. Once the logic of the system flows in a more compassionate direction, then the absurdity that is work capability assessments, contracted out and administered by minimally trained assessors, and decoupled from the NHS, become unacceptable. Disability support will need to be returned to properly trained medical professionals. So the ethos of Basic Income would flow to other parts of the system. The error of Daniel’s assessment would be a lot less likely to happen in the first place.
Ken Loach has done the nation a service. We are all citizens: you, me, and Daniel Blake.
Read the RSA's report on Basic Income - Creative Citizens, Creative State (via Medium)
Find out more about the RSA's work on Basic Income
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