Wednesday, 19 April 2017

In support of a Universal Basic Income

(Or at least a more kind and compassionate social security system)

The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is an idea that I believe needs a lot more airplay. The concept is that everyone in the country, bar none, gets an automatic social security payment, regardless of age, race, gender, employment, income, or anything. There is no Centrelink.

I've been a fan of the idea, and not a huge fan of the Centrelink Beast, long before I got sick.
I won't explain here the multiple social benefits I believe it could entail, nor will I get into the economic details of how it would work, but I will provide a few thoughts on why a UBI would greatly improve the lives of sick and vulnerable people in our community. (Ps. Regarding economics, let's just assume we tax those people and companies who earn obscene amounts of money a little bit more - not so much that they risk losing their 25th house or anything, just a tiny bit more. I mean, if I can live on $270 a week, I'm sure they could get by a little bit less than several hundred million). 

Firstly, don't get me wrong. I am very grateful to live in a country that at least has some form of social security, for students, job-seekers and the disabled, even if it is flawed. If we did not have this support, myself and many others would be in a lot worse situation than we are now. However, one of my main gripes with the immense, glacially-moving, impersonal bureaucracy that is Centrelink, is that every interaction leaves me with a sense of punctured and deflated self-worth. The sole purpose of all correspondence seems to be to prove you are not a welfare cheat. You are rarely given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to having your payments suddenly suspended. Busy students, parents or very sick people are forced to wait on hours on the phone in desperation to find out why. 

Social security exists due to a belief that everyone is a worthwhile human being, worthy of support. But of course we are all fallible, and susceptible to falling upon hard times, in which we may need financial assistance. Currently, barring the way of somebody gaining this often critically-needed support, are piles of complex paperwork, mandatory meetings for which you have no choice of timing, and telephone waiting times of up 90 minutes, if you can get through at all. 

I managed the Centrelink obstacle course throughout my student-years, with alternating bouts of frustration and acceptance. I often took in text books to read in the office. I thought about a game you could play whilst you waited on hold on the phone - gaining points for doing things like going to the loo, having a shower, changing the oil in your car. I waited 2 months for my claim for a student allowance to be processed in 2015, grateful that I had some savings as a buffer. My house mate, however, has just completed a 2 year nursing degree, involving several 10-week full-time practical placements, without any student assistance from Centrelink, because it was his second degree after an arts degree. He worked his weekends in an aged care home, and barely had a day or evening off in 2 years. I covered his rent and household bills several times while he waited for a pay check.

One time, I witnessed an old lady waiting in the queue at Centrelink collapse in grief for the recent loss of her husband. She was assisted back to her feet by a tattooed young mother with teeth missing.

That's the kind of stress that can make people sick, or at least weaken their immune systems.

It is often beyond what people who are already extraordinarily sick can handle.

Currently I am lucky enough to have a little in my savings account as a buffer, so if it takes me a week or two to sort out why my payments got cut off, I'm not going to lose my home. I also have well-practised frugal living skills. However many others do not have this second safety-net for when the safety-net fails. 

The past year I have been receiving $540/fortnight in Newstart payments, obtaining a medical certificate every three months that exempts me for looking for jobs or working for the dole. 

My symptoms are very similar to those reported by sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome / Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, an illness which, in the past, many doctors, insurance agencies and social security offices have failed to recognise as real. But I can 100% vouch for its realness. Before I got sick I was working in a highly physical outdoors job as a remote-area track ranger in Tasmania, and I had just finished a high school teaching degree. I am lucky enough to have no history of mental illness. With CFS/ME at my worst, I cannot stand for more than several minutes with out feeling dizzy and sick. My glands and throat are swollen like the flu. I experience heavy brain fog and cannot block out noises or other stimuli, making conversations very hard. I can't drive. I can't cook. I can't shop. I only get out of bed for going to the toilet or going to microwave some food. The tinny, fast-paced repetitive music of the Centrelink hold-line bashes and scrapes against my skull, as I struggle to not fall asleep while I wait. I struggle when going to the doctors to get my 3-monthly medical exemption form – sitting upright in a car make me nauseous, and there's nowhere to lie down in the waiting room either. (Centrelink doesn't accept certificates from the home doctor service).

I'm currently not as bad as that, due to months of careful pacing, but I am certain that any undue stress or exertion would push me back down in the pit, exponentially decreasing my chances of recovery at the same time. Luckily my doctors have never doubted me, as I can't imagine how much further that would erode your sense of self worth. Yet I have to use my precious and limited energy jumping figurative hoops to prove to Centrelink I am not a dole-bludger. 

Currently I'm in a long slow-paced battle with the Beast as I try to defer a mandatory meeting until my mum gets back from holiday. As I can't drive, catch a bus, walk, or stand upright for very long, I need someone to drive me there, stand in line for me, and provide back-up when I say I am too sick to work. The meeting is about a nonsensical letter I received that states my condition has been assessed as 'not temporary'. Therefore the law says I need to sign up for a 'mutual agreement plan' (which is usually about how many many jobs a week you have to search for and/or a work for the dole agreement). 

One positive that CFS is such a mystery disease, is that there are not yet any specialists that I have to fork out money to go and see. $540/fortnight and my savings buffer would get eaten up pretty quickly then! Nevertheless, I live pretty close to the line nowadays. I have been delaying seeing a dentist for an on-again-off-again toothache, partly because transport is hard for me, and partly because I'm scared of the cost. I rely heavily on my mum as my taxi service to doctors appointments, as a real taxi would break my budget. One of the reasons I have delayed applying for the higher-rated Disability Support Pension, is the multiple horror stories I have read about the process on an online CFS support group. However, I intend to start down this road soon. 

The current social security system is not a kind one. It forces ill and elderly people to wait in long queues, both on the phone and in person. It imposes piles of complex paperwork upon those requesting help, and provides very little assistance in filling it out. (I was rejected for my student payments in 2015 because I've made mistakes in the paperwork, and I have a University degree!) It sends out false debt notices, and cancels payments with no reasons given. Unnecessary stress is placed upon the chronically ill, who worry about losing their income, ability to support themselves and home. 

There is also the barriers of pride and stigma that cause long delays in very sick people applying for help. People who were previously healthy, strong and independent, can take a long time to accept they can no longer work, and push themselves into far sicker states that they would have without the financial stress. This is particularly true for CFS/ME which does not yet have a clear diagnostic technique, or wide-spread awareness. Given the connection between stress and health, perhaps there would be less chronic illness in the first place if a UBI took away that pressure from people's lives.

A UBI would stand strongly behind the belief that every human is worthy of care and support. It would not only prevent sick people from going through the wringer, but give all people the space to look after their health and well-being as their first priority. I can only see positive impacts on people's mental health, and also the level of joy, creativity and entrepreneurship in society in general.

So bring on the UBI I say! Sometime in my lifetime at least. (Or if I can't have that, at least a more kind and compassionate social security system).

(This paper contains an article by my friend Millie on her perspective of caring for her partner with CFS and the idea of a UBI). 


  1. Hi Jen,
    wonder if there is a private way to contact you? I'm from Victoria and can relate to your story. Cheers, Claire