From basic income to poor law and back again: can a UBI break the Gordian Knot between social security and waged labour?

Stream: Conditionality and Universalism
Date: Wednesday, 27 September 2017
Time: 2.55 pm – 4.35 pm


A Basic Income paid as a citizen’s entitlement is now widely promoted as the solution to poverty in an age of job insecurity. The issues are not new. The precursor to basic income schemes was the late 18th century Speenhamland system in the UK at the onset of the industrial revolution: a system of parish income support that topped up low pay and kept rural workers on the estates. Landlords lost to manufacturers when it was replaced by the ‘new poor law’ which forced able-bodied workers to choose between factory and poorhouse. Since then waged-labour, unemployment, and social security have been closely entwined.

Our social security system still distinguishes between ‘deserving poor’ who receive ‘pensions’ and ‘undeserving poor’ who are thrust onto the lower, work-tested Newstart Allowance. Could a basic income break the Gordian knot that ties benefits to workforce status and deservingness? This paper warns that it is futile and dangerous to substitute a basic income for adequate and secure wages, and flags alternative paths to social security reform that guarantee decent incomes for all.


Peter Davidson (Presenter), sprc
Peter Davidson is Senior Advisor at ACOSS and a PhD student at the SPRC. He is an acknowledged Australian expert and advocate for fairer and more effective social security, employment and tax policies and has had many papers and conference presentations published in these areas. His thesis topic is activation policies in Australia, the UK , Netherlands and Denmark.