Vol.2 No.38, 23 December 2002

The Basic Income Grant: The Real Issue

By Margaret Legum

The Basic Income Grant Coalition has published a series of FACT SHEETS addressing the most common objections to the introduction of the BIG in South Africa. They show how the BIG can be financed without too much strain on the public fiscus. They show that, far from perpetuating or introducing a dependency culture, a BIG can release poor people from their current dependency on others. They demonstrate how a BIG can be developmental in regenerating local economies and bringing them into the mainstream as contributors to the national economy and the country's tax base. And they have presented innovative ways, already being developed, for effective delivery of all welfare payments. These mechanisms - in particular a new all-purpose, corruption-proof 'smart' card - would be hastened by a policy decision to introduce a BIG.

But when all these technical arguments have been dealt with, the underlying question is what kind of society do we want for South Africa? That is the subject of the Fifth FACT SHEET which is reproduced below.

Do we want a society in which everyone is enabled to see a possible path out of poverty? In which people have control over even small resources upon which they can build? Do we want people to feel that our liberation has brought them some hope of managing to take themselves and their families out of poverty? Do we want people's' efforts to protect their families and build a career honestly to have a chance of bearing fruit? Do we want, in other words, all our people to know they are competent beings who are taken seriously as citizens, entitled to the rights, and capable of the responsibilities, of citizenship?

Or do we want a society in which some of our fellow-citizens inevitably struggle in vain to access the fruits of our liberation struggle? Do we want one in which millions find no satisfying way to contribute to our economy? Do we want millions to have no access to income other than by begging, borrowing or stealing? Should we continue to ask them to wait patiently while we find new ways to create jobs - a process that has so far eluded not only our government but governments across the globe? What hope are we offering them that such a search for job creation will yield fruits before they and their offspring expire for lack of nourishment of all kinds?

The Basic Income Grant is sometimes called a Citizens' Income, for the very reason that it embodies all citizens' right to an economic stake in the economy. It is also sometimes called a Solidarity Grant, because that suggests people with income will automatically wish to ensure that everyone has an income. All these names for a BIG describe a society in which the human values of mutuality are woven into its spirit, its ethics and its practice.

Here is an interesting thought. Ask people anywhere in the world, including those suffering violent conflict, to draw a picture of their idea of security. Very few will draw guns and fences and razor-wire and watchdogs. Most will draw pictures of children playing together in open spaces, houses without locks, people walking at night, aloneness without fear. It is a common human aspiration to feel secure without protection, and to regard other people, familiar or stranger, as friendly. Contrast that with what we know about societies where poverty stalks the land.

When we consider the problems involved in the innovation of a BIG, we must consider the costs of not introducing it. Crime is the inevitably result of widespread poverty, especially destitution. No human being would watch their children starve if they could provide food by stealing, even if it involved violence against a stranger. Crime and violence are a scourge upon the quality of life for all of us: we all live in fear of unpredictable assault. Crime and the need to protect ourselves against it costs our society billions of rands each year. Such 'security' takes up a growing proportion of our national income.

Crime also threatens our tourist industry, which is driving development in many parts of the country. It threatens our reputation internationally as a civilised country where people and their investments are safe. It contributes to embedding the racist idea that Africa is a violent continent. Although this is grossly unfair - crime is a growing and endemic feature of society in all continents where poverty and inequality exist - it is a major factor in reinforcing 'Afroscepticism'.

Second, our national economy cannot expand while some 40% of our people are effectively outside of it. Those people are unable to act as either producers or consumers. Without income, they cannot activate or upgrade their skills. They live with great deprivation and need, but they have no effective buying power. Our enterprises are seeking markets, but our people cannot buy from them. Our producers are limited in their ability to provide jobs by the inability of our own people to buy their output.

There are large areas in our country where the only available cash comes from pensions. Older people are supporting the young - not, as we used to assume, the other way round. Those pensions may just keep people alive; they cannot support an expanding economy. Only the top half of our population lives with the possibility of growth and wealth - so that is where investment happens.

This exclusion from our economy of about half our people is clearly a political danger as well as an economic and personal tragedy. So it acts also as a brake on investment - from our own capital-owners as well as foreigners. No one wants to invest in a static economy, or one in which there is a danger of rebellion by excluded people.

Third, we are eating the seed corn for future generations by depriving our children of the nutrition that builds healthy bodies and brains. Malnutrition stunts the brains of children for life; and lack of food saps their bodies' ability to build immunity. This is clearly vital in the face of the AIDS pandemic, since HIV positive status leads rapidly to death through AIDS where immune systems have been wasted. But at a wider level, we are saddling the next generation with an ill-health legacy that is hard to imagine.

Deeper than all this is the effect on communities and people's behaviour when there is desperate competition for scarce resources. The relatively strong cling to their tiny pride by exploiting and oppressing others more vulnerable. Worldwide we see women and children abused and neglected by men whose humiliation, through impotence in the economy, finds dysfunctional revenge in humiliating others. Children grow up without food when they need it, without visible signs of love and support, and often bearing the brunt of the violent frustration of parents who cannot help them. We are all socialised in families; and we are producing a society in which millions of families are unable to meet their children's basic needs, physical and psychological.

The predictable result is lack of confidence and motivation, alienation from society, delinquency and mental illness. Poverty of this order is a prescription for a sick and violent society, reproduced over generations. Research internationally shows that dynamic.

These are the facts and factors we need to consider when we say a BIG is 'unaffordable'. Everything is affordable if the alternative is worse. History is full of proof that when powerful people meet an emergency they implement the previously impossible. Once we are persuaded that today's poverty is intolerable, and that a BIG is the only way to begin to eliminate it seriously, we will find the resources.

One way to consider that equation is to imagine, next time you encounter a beggar - or some other poor person offering a service you don't want - that he/she is someone vulnerable that you know and love, who has fallen on hard times. Put your own child into that pleading face. Then try telling yourself that their welfare is not affordable, or that it is wrong to create dependency by helping them.

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