Pope Francis has declared the 19th November 2017 to be the first World Day of the Poor, as an opportunity not just to grow in charity towards the poor, but also to change attitudes towards poverty as we encounter it on a daily basis. Ahead of this, Housing Justice Policy and Public Affairs Officer, Niamh Costello, reflects on what a more universal and compassionate approach to welfare could mean for poverty and homelessness.

 

As winter starts to bite, we are all the more ready to start thinking about the poor; homeless people cold on the streets, families struggling through Christmas. Our responses mirror this seasonal emphasis on the struggle, with charitable donations peaking in November and December. This year, it is expected that homelessness will only continue to rocket, in part due to welfare reforms kicking in in early December, likely to push more families into impossible financial positions. Charities, including Housing Justice, are as ready as ever to respond to this increased demand.

 

Whilst there is an inevitable routine to the increased need at winter, this year, there is a new feature; the overwhelming responsibility of Universal Credit as a driver of homelessness and poverty. Universal Credit, seemingly one of the most disastrous examples of policy based evidence making in recent governments, and one of the largest welfare overhauls seen in several life times, is continuing to spread its reach despite disastrous consequences. With the extended roll-out sending rent arrears soaring and claimants increasingly ending up evicted, or unable to move as landlords perceive benefit claimants as risky tenants, the welfare system is clearly failing to support people to household security.

 

The term ‘universal’ in the context of welfare provision, then, is currently decidedly unpopular. Given the incorrigible number of hoops claimants must jump through, along with the number of dismissed or delayed cases, one begins to wonder why, amongst other falsities, the benefit proclaims to be ‘universal’ at all. Perhaps, then, it is time to consider what a universal benefit would really mean, and what steps it could take in relieving the homelessness issue where Universal Credit has so clearly failed.

 

Universal Basic Income (UBI), or Citizens Income, is an idea expounded for some several hundred years as a way to both end poverty and acknowledge inevitable human co-dependency. In the twenty-first century, against a backdrop of ever-growing automation, this seems more important than ever. Citizen’s Basic Income Trust, a charitable trust promoting the concept, claims that Universal Income should be unconditional, individual, non-withdrawable, and automatic as a right of citizenship.

 

There are also profound economic incentives championed in terms of what UBI can offer; increased efficiency for one, as well as providing a vehicle of support against automation caused unemployment. This aside, there is also a moral question at play. In his book; Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian Social Policy, Malcolm Torry argues that Basic Income should be seen as an act of grace, reflecting a non-judgemental, equal treatment of each individual.

 

Such a system would break the cycle of poverty witnessed, which we are encouraged to think of in light of the World Day of the Poor. Basic Income offers something unique in preventing and relieving homelessness and poverty; offering people a sense of respect and unresented autonomy, increasing autonomy, and propagating empowerment, rather than enforcing a charitable reliance at the heart of the seasonal calendar.