Universal Basic Services and the Cost-of-Living Crisis

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Anna Coote. Click here to access the article.

As the cost-of-living crisis escalates, policymakers on all sides are casting about for ways to ease the pain.  Hand-outs to low-income households? Price caps? Higher wages? Refusal to pay energy bills? Tax cuts? Some have merit but there’s a big gap here.  All potential ‘solutions’ are cash-based: they focus on money in people’s pockets.  That’s okay but it’s only part of the picture. What about in-kind benefits – the virtual income derived from public services and other collective measures that make sure everyone’s needs are met? 

Universal basic services (UBS) should be front and centre of policy development to address the cost-of-living crisis. They have substantial cash-replacement value.  They are highly redistributive as they are worth much more to those on low incomes.  They make far better use of public funds than subsidising individual market transactions.  They generate jobs at all skills levels and in all parts of the country.  They provide secure foundations so that everyone can flourish, preventing problems associated with ill health, isolation, unemployment and lost opportunities that can be very costly to cope with down the line.   

Imagine how much harder up – even destitute – most of us (except the very rich) would be if we had to pay directly for schooling or healthcare.  Now consider how much better off we would be if everyone had equal access to decent housing, childcare, adult social care, transport, household utilities and nutritious food, because these were provided collectively – through a combination services, regulation and investment – so that they were genuinely affordable for everyone. 

The trouble with focusing on cash-based measures is that the more ambitious they are, the more they threaten the fiscal space available for improving and extending services.  As governments seek to ‘balance the books’, they ramp up public spending cuts, further hollowing out local authority budgets and stripping down public provision, so that people have to dig deeper into their own pockets to get what they need.  It’s utterly self-defeating not to see cash and in-kind benefits as two sides of the same coin, playing compatible and mutually reinforcing roles in delivering life’s essentials.

In social policy, siloed thinking acts as a brake on this approach.  There are number-crunchers who like to think about cash transfers and don’t bother much with services.  And there are countless specialists in different social problems and services who don’t bother much with each other or with the number-crunchers. There are honourable exceptions, such as the Women’s Budget Group, and I am really not blaming anyone in the field because, as we all know, social policy these days is a relentless, heart-breaking struggle.  But we do need to get together and step on the gas (sorry, the renewably resourced accelerator).

UBS is not the solution.  But as I have argued elsewhere, it’s a ‘Big Idea’ that can start small and local, developing incrementally and learning from experience.  It recognises that different areas of need have to be addressed in a customised fashion and offers a principled framework for policy and practice that can be applied in every case.

There are several ways in which the UBS framework can help to make social policy more radical, relevant and effective in addressing the multiple crises that beset us today: not just spiralling living costs, but widening inequalities and impending climate catastrophe.  

First, it insists on the primary importance of meeting human needs, rather than satisfying wants and preferences (as in orthodox economics).  Second, it reclaims and reimagines the collective ideal that inspired the post-war welfare settlement, demonstrating the inescapable logic of pooling resources, sharing risks and working together to make sure everyone’s needs are met.  Third, it demonstrates the value of a ‘social income’ derived from in-kind benefits that are delivered through collectively provided services available to all according to need not ability to pay. 

Fourth, and arguably most important, it is designed to be ecologically sustainable.  While human wants and preferences vary infinitely and can multiply exponentially, needs are satiable: there are limits beyond which more food, more work or more security are no longer helpful and could even be harmful.  Thus, sufficiency is integral to the process of meeting universal needs.  The combination of these two concepts – universalism and sufficiency – is central to UBS. In line with Raworth’s ‘safe and just space for humanity’, the goal is to keep everyone above a secure social foundation without breaching planetary boundaries.

By combining universality with sufficiency, the UBS framework can influence provisioning systems so that they remain within ecological limits. It offers a vehicle for shaping the practice of individuals and organisations involved in delivering services that meet human needs. By focusing on life’s essentials and enabling people to live well within limits, it can help to change norms and expectations, influencing what people want in life, how much is considered ‘enough’ and how current activities can affect the life chances of future generations.

About the author

Anna Coote is a Principal Fellow at the New Economics Foundation.


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