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“Grace Income & The Vineyard” – Exploring UBI in the UK

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In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). In the parable, the landowner hires several workers throughout the day.  We’re told that the first intake of workers is hired first thing in the morning.  Another group are enrolled at around 9am then a further three groups of new workers are brought in at 12pm, 3pm and then 5pm. The men who were hired early in the morning were promised one denarius for their work – but at the end of the day, they’re aggrieved to realise that all workers will be receiving the amount regardless of how many hours they worked. In fact, we’re even told that the workers who worked the least we’re paid first! 

Jesus begins the parable by telling the disciples that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. To any audience listening this can appear a strange comparison to make, suggesting that the way things work in Heaven are quite unfair. The situation as experienced by the workers who worked a full day’s labour is clearly unjust. In our modern economy – we fully understand the inherent relationship between work and reward. The well understood premise it this. Those who work harder or who have greater talents than others should receive the appropriate rewards for which their talents or efforts are valued at. Rewarding people in any other way could be construed as morally wrong, and certainly incentivising the wrong kinds of behaviour.  If the world of work is going to function then it needs to build on the principle of equity, or we’ll have chaos. 

But in this parable, Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t operate on the principle of equity. The Kingdom of Heaven operates on the principle of grace. Firstly, the landowner chooses to behave graciously to others. Presumably he hires enough workers in the morning to the complete the tasks needed to be done, but on discovering that there are other men without work later in the day – he displays a social conscience to give them an opportunity regardless. Then the landowner further demonstrates grace by paying everyone the same. This is tangible analogy for the grace that God has for each of us. It’s entirely unmerited, freely given and open to all. To some this may even seem unfair. 

Today – for many in the world of work, or people grappling with unemployment – the concept of grace will feel very distant. Increasingly, millions of people are suffering from poverty despite being in paid employment. Precarious hours contracts, low-paid work, and lack of opportunities for training and progression can keep whole communities trapped in a low-skill/low-pay equilibrium for generations. For others, due to limiting health conditions, difficult family backgrounds or other systematic barriers within society, even entering the employment market in the first place can feel like a huge mountain to climb. The only recourse people have for support in situations like this is to rely on an increasingly threadbare social safety net in the form of the UK benefits system – which comes with a huge amount of social stigmatisation for just asking for help and requires you to pass an increasingly pervasive set of behavioural tests to prove your entitlement to help. 

In my view, society aims for equity despite the value in achieving this being questionable and we don’t pursue grace as a societal goal as some may resist this as unfairness. But with 14.4 million people in the UK living in poverty, we fail to achieve either equity or grace. This is why more and more people are starting to look at the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a potential solution to the problem of poverty we face. UBI is the principal that every citizen of a society (Universal) should receive a consistent income to ensure they can access the necessary standard of living to avoid poverty (Basic). Crucially, unlike today’s equity based welfare system, it would be available to all with no conditionality or behaviour tests. UBI is a policy proposal which would align with the image of Kingdom of Heaven we see in the Vineyard. A better name for Universal Basic Income would be Grace Income

The idea of UBI is radical, but also very old. Ideas of a UBI have been around as a potential utopian model of the future since the 16th century. UBI pilots were trailed in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s and subsequent pilots have taken place in Namibia, Uganda, Kenya, Finland, the Netherlands, India, France and are in progress currently in Wales. In recent years, the idea has been supported by (unsuccessful) 2020 United States presidential candidate Andrew Yang, economists such as Milton Freidman, tech entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey, as well Christian leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu & Pope Francis. A Basic Income has its advocates on the political left as a potential egalitarian solution to poverty – as well as the right, some of whom interpret the idea as a way of reducing the remit of the current welfare state, encouraging individual responsibility, and releasing a wave of enterprising spirit amongst recipients. For some advocates – UBI is the answer to the anticipated mass job losses which are on the horizon due to increased artificial intelligence and automation. For others, it’s a democratic necessity to allow citizens to fully participate in society. My reason for being interested in the idea is the Vineyard. 

Like in the Vineyard, in a society which offers a Grace Income, everyone receives a denarius to cover their basic needs. The grace is withheld from no one. The landowner seeks everyone out to make sure they are paid. The feasibility of introducing Grace Income raises legitimate doubts. Is it realistic? Will it promote dependency on the state? Is it affordable? Is it even fair? But the similarities between UBI and the Vineyard means that this is an idea that needs exploring more. The Vineyard provokes us to challenge our current societal structures and presumptions and asks us whether we really should be looking to achieve equity or whether we’re not missing the mark by failing to embrace the idea of grace. Would this allow us to re-design the world of work and welfare into some that more closely resembles the Kingdom of Heaven? 

Tim Jeffery is an experienced Employability professional with over ten years of service working in the non-for-profit sector. Tim’s work has been across various initiatives designed to support vulnerable people back into sustainable and meaningful employment. Based in Sheffield, he is also a Charity Trustee. Recognised for his contributions to the sector, Tim was awarded Fellowship of the Institute of Employability Professionals in July 2021 and Fellowship to the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, in February 2022

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