Is Pope Francis Sympathetic to the Universal Basic Income Concept?

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, who co-wrote the Pope’s recent book Let Us Dream that endorses the concept, is leading an online discussion of the issue on Thursday.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square
Pope Francis greets pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square (photo: Annett_Klingner / Pixabay/CC0)

VATICAN CITY — One little-known passage in Pope Francis’ recently published book Let Us Dream is his call to explore the concepts such as universal basic income (UBI) — an economic theory whereby the government provides unconditional flat payments to citizens without the need to work. 

Economic support somewhat akin to UBI has been practiced for many years by governments through social-support mechanisms such as child, elderly and disability benefits. But the push for something more fully aligned with UBI came closer to reality last year in many jurisdictions, including the United States, with stimulus checks provided in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

This has prompted some groups to now push for an official UBI program. Proponents of UBI, who include the former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the U.N. Development Programme and the World Economic Forum (notably through its Great Reset project), argue that, especially in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the opportunity should be seized to put it into practice.

“The alternative to not having UBI is worse,” warned the World Economic Forum last April, just after the first COVID lockdowns began in Europe, and predicted in its absence “rising likelihood of social unrest, conflict, unmanageable mass migration and the proliferation of extremist groups that capitalize and ferment on social disappointment. 

“It is against this background that we seriously need to consider implementing a well-designed UBI, so shocks may hit, but they won’t destroy,” the article’s authors argued.

Critics, however, have called UBI — considered only a fringe idea — a failed, utopian, and essentially socialist experiment that actually increases poverty, reduces incentives to work, and ends up harming the vulnerable whom it is supposed to help. They also say the policy, which has many forms and was the subject to a great deal of debate in the years just before the COVID-19 outbreak last year, would not only be prohibitively expensive but also harmful to democracy. 

The Pope therefore raised eyebrows last April when he appeared to weigh in on the need for UBI during an Easter letter to social movements. “This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage,” he said, although his comments were swiftly played down by Cardinal Michael Czerny, the undersecretary of the migrants and refugees section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, who clarified the Pope was referring “only to informal workers” and that his comments had a “more precise scope” than UBI. 

But no such ambiguity exists in Let Us Dream, co-written by papal biographer Austen Ivereigh. The Pope firstly praises work as a right and duty, but then wonders “what will our future look like when 40 or 50% of young people are jobless, as is the case now in some countries?” (The possibility of high levels of future joblessness has also been raised by the entrepreneur Elon Musk, who believes increasing automation could necessitate UBI.)

Work, the Pope argues, is not just about earning money but “self-expression, of taking part in society, and of contributing to the common good.” But too often, he writes, the world has it “the wrong way round,” and says that despite creating value, workers are “treated as the most expendable elements of an enterprise while some shareholders — with their narrow interest in maximizing profits — call the shots.” He also points out the “need to move beyond” the idea that volunteering is not work because it pays no wages.

“Recognizing the value to society of the work of non-earners is a vital part of our rethinking in the post-COVID world,” he explains. “That’s why I believe it is time to explore concepts like the universal basic income (UBI), also known as ‘the negative income tax’: an unconditional flat payment to all citizens, which could be dispersed through the tax system.”

He believes UBI could “reshape relations in the labor market, guaranteeing people the dignity of refusing employment terms that trap them in poverty.” He also believes it would “give people the basic security they need, remove the stigma of welfarism, and make it easier to move between jobs as technology-driven labor patterns increasingly demand.”

For the Pope, UBI would free people “to combine earning wages with giving time to the community,” and he adds that it “may well be time to consider reduced working hours with adjusted salaries,” which, as others have argued, “can paradoxically increase productivity.” 

In words largely indistinguishable from those of the World Economic Forum, Silicon Valley leaders and other such UBI proponents, the Pope concludes:

“Working less so that more people can gain access to the labor market is one aspect of the kind of thinking we urgently need to explore. By making the integration of the poor and the care for our environment central to society’s goals, we can generate work while humanizing our surroundings. By providing a universal basic income, we can free and enable people to work for the community in a dignified way. By adopting more intensive permaculture methods for growing food, we can regenerate the natural world, create work and biodiversity, and live better. All this means having common-good goals for human development rather than the false assumption of the infamous trickle-down theory that a growing economy will make us all richer. By focusing on land, lodging, and labor we can regain a healthy relationship with the world and grow by serving others. In this way, we transcend the narrow individualist framework of the liberal paradigm without falling into the trap of  populism. Democracy is then reinvigorated by the concerns and wisdom of the people who are involved in it. Politics can once again be an expression of love through service. By making the restoration of our peoples’ dignity the central objective of the post-COVID world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions. To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future.”

Austen Ivereigh, who has said he drafted passages of the book, will lead a conversation on the topic at a Zoom event on Thursday hosted by Catholic Voices, an organization he founded. Also speaking will be Ruth Kelly, a newly-appointed member of the Vatican Council for the Economy and former U.K. Cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s Labour government, and Sister Alessandra Smerilli, coordinator of the economic task force of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission that the Pope set up last year.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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