Critical Social Work and Basic Income

In this essay, I will reflect on critical social work and the opportunities presented, as a student and future practitioner of the discipline, to advance a social justice agenda. I will give an overview of the concept of basic income and the alternatives it offers before stating the importance of the idea to critical social work. Through a social justice lens I will outline some of the opportunities a basic income presents that emerge from current literature on the subject. I will then explore the challenges to basic income presented by neoliberal discourse and global capitalism. Trends in technology will be identified as an important factor for further discussion before concluding with a suggestion for the role critical social work could play in advocating for a basic income.

As a student of social work coming to the end of my first semester I feel like my eyes have been opened to a world of injustice. As each week has progressed and new topics unfolded I have learned the almost inconceivable facts about violence against women, about the staggering inequity between the rich and the poor and of the impact of global capitalism and neoliberalism on society. I have learned about privilege and I have learned to sit with my discomfort as I consider my own. I have learned about social justice and I have learned that I have a choice to make in how I study and practice social work. I have learned that I can blame the most disadvantaged people in society for their situations and begrudgingly apply band aids to their problems or that I can be critical of the oppressive forces that have put them where they are and be respectful and non-judgmental of their lived experiences. With this choice in mind I accept Morley, Macfarlane and Ablett’s invitation to “participate in social work as a critical and hopeful practice of social change for social justice” (2014, p.268).

To practice and study social work critically it is vital to question the dominant social forces that shape our society (Morley et al., 2013 pp. 3–4). As we ask these questions it is also our obligation to imagine the changes that could lead us to a more socially just society. There is a danger in doing this of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the injustices in our society. Neoliberal discourse exploits this potential hopelessness by presenting itself as an inevitability, as the only way. Morley et al. (2014 pp 266–267) shine a light on hope as tool and guiding principal. They tell us that we can create counter-hegemonic visions of the alternatives to neoliberalism and other forces, in fact, they argue that this is key to critical social work. They describe an ‘educated hope’ that critiques the flaws in our current societal situation and imagines what the unflawed version might look like. They encourage us to use this vision of justice to identify possibilities for change and set our paths towards it. As a student of critical social work, I find hope through transformative education that enables me to critically deconstruct ideas that I have spent my life immersed in. Through the critical lens, I am able to see the means to resist dominant discourses and forces where they act contrary to social justice. From this platform, I can begin to see the alternative visions of hope that advance a social justice agenda.

One such vision of hope is the idea of basic income. Basic income is a socially just (Mays, Marston and Tomlinson, 2016) alternative to the neoliberal policies of income support that have shifted the responsibility away from the state and onto individuals for meeting their basic needs (Morley et al., 2014 p. 36). Basic income is a payment that has five core characteristics:

* Periodic: it is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant.

* Cash payment: it is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.

* Individual: it is paid on an individual basis — and not, for instance, to households.

* Universal: it is paid to all, without means test.

* Unconditional: it is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.

(The Basic Income Earth Network, n.d.)

To establish an overview of basic income it is important to look at examples of the kinds of policies and systems that basic income provides an alternative to through its core characteristics.

If introduced in Australia basic income could be the alternative to a system of social security that is “needlessly complex” and “contains a bewildering number of schemes” that regular people find hard to understand, access and engage with (Watts, 2016 p. 76). This sense of confusion has led to downward envy towards welfare recipients and has been used by Governments to further restrict access and rates of payment (Tomlinson, 2016, pp. 56–57). The universal nature of basic income, it is paid to all, would eliminate this harmful complexity.

Basic income could be the alternative to a system that demonstrates inequity in the payment of aged pensions, disability pensions, unemployment benefit and student allowances. Watt identifies the differences between the payments of pensions and allowances and describes them as “both arbitrary and unfair” (2016, p.77) He goes on to identify the gap between these payment levels and the basic costs of living. This gap places significant numbers of welfare recipients below the poverty line. A “social justice basic income” that meets “basic needs” that includes costs for modest housing, adequate food, transportation, childcare, health care, and other necessities (Major, 2016) and is paid at the same rate to all is the alternative to this.

The current income support system in Australia “generates a disturbing level of harm” (Watt, 2016 p.78) humiliating and stigmatising welfare recipients, making stressful intrusions into private matters and imposing rigorous conditions on access and eligibility (Watt, 2016; Tomlinson, 2016; Mays et al., 2016). The current system utilises “army of welfare surveillance operatives chasing people for diddly-squat amounts” targeting the most disadvantaged people looking for ‘welfare abuse’ whilst ignoring tax avoidance and evasion amongst the wealthy and well off (Tomlinson, 2016 see also Mays, Marston, Tomlinson, 2016). By placing ‘activity tests’ as barriers to access to allowances the current system has begun to erode the rights of vulnerable people taking from them their economic autonomy and freedom of choice (Watt, 2016, p.79). A social justice basic income can provide people with economic autonomy and provide them with a choice in what activities to pursue. People would be able to engage in the work force if they chose to (rather than being compelled) and would not be punished for undertaking voluntary work, unpaid care or community activities, training and education or artistic and cultural activities.

For critical social work, basic income is an important idea because it fundamentally rejects the notion that people are entirely responsible for their circumstances and that a ‘free market’ is somehow the solution to welfare issues (Lacey, 2016). A basic income offers the potential for a “better way” by running counter to policies of austerity and market-based approaches to social issues perpetuated by neoliberal discourse (Mays, Marston, Tomlinson, 2016, p.12). A basic income puts the needs of people before the needs of the economy and as such upholds the core social justice beliefs that are central to critical social work.

The alternative vision basic income offers to income support has clear emancipatory outcomes for the poor and vulnerable members of society. Not least by removing the poverty traps (Enríquez, 2016; Rankin, 2016; Denniss & Swann, 2016; Sampford, 2016; Marston, 2016; Mays, 2016; Standing; 2016) inherent in means-tested welfare systems. Basic income could also address the underlying issue of wealth inequality. Citing O’Sullivan & Kersley (2012) Morley et al. highlight that “the richest 300 people in the world now have more wealth than the poorest three billion people” (2014, p.34). Whilst a basic income proposal alone would not directly address inequality on this level some of the accompanying ideas and policies that would need to be put in place could. For example, Major argues that to achieve a social justice basic income a macro-structural approach to wealth redistribution is required. He looks beyond income taxation as the only source and imagines how economic justice could look by redistributing different types of income. Going further he says that we must “conceptualize, and organize around, distribution and redistribution in terms of the total economic resources of a society, not just the share that individuals claim as their own income” (2016, p.92) This structural approach that looks beyond individuals resonates strongly with the ethics of critical social work.

Mays, Marston & Tomlinson assert that “it is not enough to simply spell out why a basic income is a more effective way of fighting poverty or income inequality” and propose that advocates for basic income “must also engage in a public discussion about the ends and not just the means, that is, they need to articulate the reasons how basic income fits into a conception of a ‘good society,’” (2016, p.6). To me a ‘good society’ would be measured by the principals of social justice. Basic income addresses the four pillars of social justice: access, equity, rights and participation (Morley et al., 2014 p.4) that are threatened by oppressions imposed by neoliberalism in social justice issues other than poverty and wealth inequality. Some of these opportunities for a socially just good society emerge from current literature on basic income.

The global social justice issue of gender inequity and the patriarchal forces (see Morley et al., 2014, pp. 46–47) that perpetuate it could be addressed through the alternative of basic income. A common theme in the current literature on basic income is that women spend more time than men occupied in care labour that is not renumerated (Schulz, 2017; Enríquez, 2016; Lacey, 2016). A basic income could lead to “improved gender equality by transferring funds directly to all household members rather than simply a ‘single household breadwinner’ [and] can help bypass existing patriarchal gendered power relations” (Lacey, 2016, pp.94–95) Mulligan suggests that a basic income could make unpaid forms of work more appealing to men. She says that this could lead to a fairer distribution of labour in paid and unpaid activities and she sees “a fair division of labour as one in which men and women divide their time between paid, domestic and voluntary work” (2013, pp.170–171). Steps towards gender equity could impact on greatly on the issue of domestic violence. By providing an alternative where women have economic independence they would be able to escape some of the financial elements of ‘coercive control’ enacted upon them by their abusers (see Stark, 2007). Schulz proposes that the arguments for basic income based on social justice, equality and freedom could be reinforced by arguing systemically from a gender equity perspective (2017). This is consistent with articulating how basic income fits into a wider idea of a ‘good society’ (Mays, Marston & Tomlinson, 2016, p.6).

Marston (2016) addresses the issue of climate change, arguably the biggest social justice issue we face today (see Moss, 2009), in the context of basic income. He argues that climate change should be addressed with a move towards a low-carbon economy and that the polices required to achieve this need to integrate with welfare policies. He notes that “environmental degradation appears to be another side effect of economic inequality and analyses show there is a negative correlation between income inequality and environmental sustainability.” (p.162) He highlights that a basic income would have benefits on an environmental scale by “decoupling income support policy from labour market polices” (p.165) The alternative that basic income provides to neoliberal policies of economic growth represent a synergy with environmental concerns to slow down on production, consumption and pollution. In aligning the benefits of basic income with climate change issues Marston strengthens the argument in favour of basic income. Deconstructing the causes and forces behind a global crisis and seeking alternatives that advance a social justice agenda is a vitally important approach for the critical social worker and this should inspire further investigation.

There are many challenges presented to the idea of a basic income by global capitalism and neoliberal discourses. It is important to understand the nature of these challenges to be able to effectively advocate for basic income. Economic challenges are inevitable — “Two of the first questions that get asked about basic income are: at what rate should it be set? and is it affordable?” (Mays & Marston, 2016, p.17) There is a great deal of rhetoric behind these questions. A neoliberal austerity policy version of affordable might sound very different from a socially just equitable idea of affordable. Despite this current literature suggests that these challenges can be addressed. Mays and Marston refer to studies suggesting that national context and capacity would define the rate of a basic income but that the payment should “be able to recast the relationship between labour and capital and the commodification of everyday life.” (2016, p.17) Major’s idea of a social justice basic income that meets ‘basic needs’ (2016) is useful here. He establishes the rate required to meet this idea in the context of the US. He goes on to propose how this rate could be affordable. Rankin (2016) does a similar analysis in the context of New Zealand. Van Parijs discusses the idea that with the threat of climate change emissions rights could be sold up to acceptable levels and that the revenues from this sale could fund a basic income (2016, p.176) Tomlinson says that “economic assertions about basic income being unaffordable are a zombie lie: no matter how many times they are dispatched, they keep coming at you” (2016, p.62). I believe that Tomlinson’s observation points to objections of a more ideological nature than affordability.

Enshrined within global capitalist ideology is the idea of laissez faire — the idea that the markets should be left alone and that people can look after themselves (Morley et al., 2016, p.32). Basic income directly challenges this flawed faith in the economic markets and provides an alternative that looks after people collectively and without prejudice. This alternative can be hard to accept for people that have, or believe that they have, benefited from the current system. Hegemony is a powerful force in shaping how people react to alternatives. Tomlinson discusses the ideological differences between neoliberalism and basic income in several dichotomies, for example: earned vs entitled, deserved vs rights and worth vs unpresumptuous (2016 p.59). To me these embody the ideological challenges that neoliberalism presents to the idea of basic income. It is however in the radical difference in approach and intention that the value of the idea can be found.

Rankin briefly mentions (2016, p.39) a US study by Frey & Osbourne that estimates that up to 47 percent of total employment in the US is at risk to computerisation (2013). Frey & Osbourne identify trends in technology that have increased this risk including advances in big data algorithms and robotics (2013, p.47). Some ‘big names’ in the technology sector have voiced their support for a basic income in response to advances in automation (Weller, 2017). These include the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, who is funding a basic income experiment in Kenya (see Kubzansky & Williams, 2017). Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is concerned about job displacement due to automation in several industries over the next two decades and argues in favour of a basic income to compensate (Galeon, 2017). If these predictions and concerns manifest then the need for basic income as an alternative will become even greater.

Van Parijs muses that basic income must be appealing to anyone who is committed to freedom and equality and he resonates with Morley et al. in their message of ‘educated hope’ (2014) as he urges his fellow sociologists to “think radical, think utopian” (2013). I believe this message is also vital to the student and practitioner of critical social work. The social work discipline is uniquely positioned to influence a wide range of services and policies in society. By questioning dominant social forces like global capitalism and imagining and advocating for social just alternatives like basic income critical social workers can advance a social justice agenda. Basic income is not a complete answer to all of society’s problems but it does serve as a model for critical thinking and as an example of a genuine alternative.

I believe that the role of critical social work in advocating for a basic income is to guide a multidisciplinary approach. A change so fundamental to the current neoliberal society in which we live is going to require the input of many disciplines. Already economists and sociologists advocate alongside social workers. Soon we will need to work with technologists to make sure that the drive for a basic income remains firmly grounded in the principals of social justice.


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