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In Europe, Covid-19 puts idea of universal income back into welfare debate

Alessandro, a homeless man, asks for alms as a woman wearing a protective face mask gives him money at the entrance to a supermarket in Barcelona, Spain on March 24, 2020.
Alessandro, a homeless man, asks for alms as a woman wearing a protective face mask gives him money at the entrance to a supermarket in Barcelona, Spain on March 24, 2020. © Nacho Doce, Reuters

Hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, Spain is the first European country to lay the foundation for universal income. The health crisis has also reopened the debate about a living wage or unconditional living allowance in France and elsewhere.

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Before the pandemic, the question of universal income was at the heart of the agreement between Spain’s ruling socialist party and the radical left-wing Podemos party to form a coalition. Faced with the health and social crisis of the country’s Covid-19 outbreak, the government announced the gradual implementation of a minimum subsistence income: a safety net of a yet-to-be-determined amount for all families with an income of less than €450.

The measure will take effect in May. “Many families don’t have the means to refill their refrigerators right now,” said Pablo Iglesias, Spain’s minister of social rights and Podemos’s leader, to the Spanish press on April 16.

Unemployment figures have reached record levels in Spain since the beginning of the outbreak: according to the ministry of social security, 900,000 people have lost work between mid-March and April 1, which surpasses the number from the 2008 financial crisis. “The minimum living wage will be permanent, as provided for in the coalition agreement,” said José Luis Escrivá, the ministry’s head, on the Spanish channel Cadena SER.

“From the start, universal income has been one of Podemos’s campaign themes. Today, we are somewhat in a minimum income model, which is intended to cover the essential needs of life. They are not the same thing,” explained Joan Cortinas-Munoz, a researcher at the Centre of Sociology at Sciences Po Paris and a specialist in Spanish social politics, to FRANCE 24.

Cortinas-Munoz also points out that Spanish regions, which enjoy administrative autonomy, have established their own minimum allowance programs, with the requirement that recipients are looking for work, since the late 1980s. The Spanish government has announced that its universal income program will complement these regional systems.

The universal income debate

Will the measure suffice? “In some regions of Spain, the amounts of money in these programs are ridiculous. They provide around €500 for a single person, while the poverty line for an individual is about €750,” Cortinas-Munoz said.

“What’s more, this health crisis will be an economic crisis. The worst since World War Two. With soaring unemployment, many people will face a social welfare system that’s been hardened by 30 years of reforms. Many will be excluded from accessing it,” he said.

Numerous voices are calling for a universal income mechanism. Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey announced a donation of $1 billion to help manage the pandemic and the post-lockdown period by establishing a “universal basic income”. In Germany, the designer Tonia Merz started a petition that gained more than 460,000 signatures and was sent to the Bundestag. In the UK, 170 members of parliament called for unconditional aid for all for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, but Finance Minister Rishi Sunak dismissed the idea.

In an open letter circulated on Easter Sunday, Pope Francis wrote in favor of a universal basic wage to “honor the essential and noble work” of low-income workers. “Street vendors, scrap merchants, stall keepers, small farmers, construction workers, garment workers, various caregivers” are “totally invisible in the system”, said the head of the Catholic Church.

In France, rethinking the post-crisis period

In France, the idea of universal basic income is not new. But it is newly resonant as the health crisis has demonstrated the vulnerability of workers in precarious jobs. “Those without access to partial unemployment or retirement benefits, like deliverers for digital platforms such as Deliveroo, have no financial guarantees if they stop working to protect their health,” said Nicole Teke, the spokeswoman for the Mouvement Français pour un Revenu de Base (French Movement for Basic Income, or MFRB), an organisation created in 2013.

“There are holes in social security, we want a real security base for everyone,” the activist, who welcomes Spain’s initiative to install a living wage, told FRANCE 24.

Universal income could be at the core of a philosophical debate about a post-Covid-19 model for society “for reasserting the value of essential jobs, such as home healthcare aide, which are the most poorly paid, and also to put an end to constant suspicion towards the unemployed within the administrations that pay social benefits in France,” she said.

Economic recovery could hamper social justice

In June 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron launched a dialogue around a universal activity income to merge welfare, housing allowances and the state’s activity bonus. According to its contours, which are still unclear, beneficiaries will commit to not refusing more than two job offers. “Universal income, as we understand it, will not be implemented by the current government,” said Trek.

“In the crisis scenario before us, I don’t see how a government could embark on a logic of universal income, with the pressure of financial markets, banks and international financial institutions on countries’ budgets,” Cortinas-Munoz said.

In its forecast of April 15, the International Monetary Fund’s expected Spain’s public debt to increase to 113 percent from 95 percent in 2019. In France, where more than nine million employees are on partial unemployment, the debt is expected to jump 17 points to 115 percent of gross domestic product in 2020.

"There are two opposing visions of society,” Trek said. “That which wants to take this opportunity brought by the crisis for rethinking our system on the basis of social justice, and that which wants to save businesses and the economy, tightening the belt.”

This article has been translated from the original in French by Philippe Theise.

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