Why don't we just…
answer our mental health crisis with free money?

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The current crop of young people aged 14 to 24 may be the most vulnerable of all since the Second World War. Their mental health has been affected by a global financial crisis, a decade of austerity and now the Covid pandemic. For young people in the north, the position is especially acute. Decades of deindustrialisation, failure to invest in infrastructure and wholesale cuts to public services mean that pathways out of poverty, inequality and abusive relationships have been cut off. Now, more than ever, young people are dependent.

Every adult ought to be entitled to annual payments to the tune of the minimum income

Our research suggests that the answer to this problem is extremely simple: give people free money. Universal basic income (UBI) is a system of regular, secure, unconditional cash transfers to all citizens. People get paid whether they work or not, whether they have savings or not. We argue that every adult citizen ought to be entitled to annual payments to the tune of the minimum income standard: about £12,000 a year. That’s a cost to the Exchequer of about £650-£700 billion a year.

For much of modern history, such a policy has been regarded as ridiculous. Surely no serious policy maker could endorse a policy that “rewards idleness”, pays those who don’t need it and costs a fortune?

Increasingly, research suggests that it is not just serious, but the only option to deal with the many crises that are hitting the north in particular. Existing evidence shows that UBI has no impact on willingness to work and can provide critical stimulus for entrepreneurship and training, which are crucial for keeping our young people at home in our region. Most importantly at a time of pandemic, however, our work suggests that UBI is the key means of promoting health by reducing poverty, reducing stress associated with inequality and changing behaviour to promote longer-term interests.

Poverty and inequality are the natural consequences of four decades of economic policy. They have been presented as stimuli for economic activity that increases society’s overall interests. Our Dear Leader himself invoked “the spirit of envy” in justifying radical inequalities in our society.

However, while we often understand that poverty harms by depriving us of decent quality housing and nutrition, we seldom understand that inequality makes us ill. Simply being subject to arbitrary decision-making leaves us in a state of fight or flight. Johnson’s envy might better be characterised as a state of cold war between individuals within organisational hierarchies and within society more broadly. The stress contributes psychologically to anxiety and depression, but it also affects our immune systems, leaving us vulnerable to any number of diseases. When people recognise that they are near the bottom of the pile, they invest less in their long-term interests. They assume they are unlikely to live long, so pursue hedonistic pleasures, such as smoking and drinking, which further damages their health. Each of these elements means that large portions of our society are chronically unwell and, in contradiction to the “spirit of envy”, unable to improve their lot.

We’re still in the middle of a pandemic that has exposed some consequences. We’re spending hundreds of billions dealing with ill health. Those costs are on top of those under “normal” conditions. Stress was found to be responsible for 37 per cent of all work-related ill health cases in 2015-16, and 45 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health. It has also been linked to long-term health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and depression, responsible for 70 per cent of NHS England expenditure and 50 per cent of all GP appointments, 64 per cent of outpatient appointments and 70 per cent of all inpatient bed days. That’s hundreds of billions each year on top of the hundreds of billions of pounds we give away to those who don’t need it through wholly immoral tax reliefs and avoidance schemes.

With the Welsh government committed to pursuing a trial, we are moving closer to understanding just how much of the cost of UBI can be recouped through savings in health and tax relief reductions, alongside increases in productivity and entrepreneurship. In advance of that, much can be done.

We have been funded by the health research charity the Wellcome Trust to model the impact of UBI on anxiety and depression in young people. While we will work most closely with young people in Bradford, we will be producing statistical projections of impact across England. Our initial work suggests that, for this incredibly vulnerable group, there is basically no alternative. Given that the UK government is committed to a prevention agenda, it is only UBI or something like it that can deal with the structural crises that are leaving a generation fundamentally unwell and traumatised, and totally unable to improve their lot.

Matthew Johnson is professor of politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University

Image: Bradford, the location for research into how universal basic income might improve mental health

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