“…Basic income is not the solution to all the problems that this society has… but it can put an end to poverty from an economic point of view, and it can help people to have more freedom to plan their lives; to be able to do other things that do not always involve increasingly precarious employment and lives condemned to begging, to having to beg for benefits, beg for contracts, etcetera”.

We talked to Sergi Raventós about the Basic Income Pilot Plan in Catalonia, which he has been directing since September. With a PhD in Sociology and a diploma in Social Work, he has developed his work in the field of mental health and labour insertion and is a member of the Basic Income Network.

It is still very difficult to dissociate basic income from poverty and charity. Can you help us to clarify the differences between basic income and minimum income?

It is true that, in some communities, the term basic income is still used to define conditional income policies to combat extreme poverty. These are the so-called minimum insertion incomes; now expressions such as guaranteed income are used. They all amount to the same thing, with different access criteria or conditions. It is a question of assigning an income that is low in amount and with a large number of requirements that are difficult to meet.

In this sense, basic income is a proposal that aims to be unconditional, universal, of a sufficient amount, regular -monthly if possible-, and that is assigned to anyone who resides in a territory -something they can prove in some way.

How did we arrive at the Basic Income Pilot Plan in Catalonia, which you are going to direct?

I imagine that, as a result of all the movements that are taking place in different parts of the world, here in Catalonia there were also different manifestos that were made during the pandemic and which contributed to the CUP (anti-capitalist party) including basic income in its electoral programme.

The CUP plays an important role in the formation of the government, here in Catalonia, and has made it a condition to draw up a pilot programme. And Esquerra Republicana, which holds the presidency, gave the green light. This led to the creation of the Office for which I am responsible.

It is clear, then, that it is a question of political will…

That’s right.

What does the Pilot Plan consist of, and how will it be implemented?

What we want now is to design a plan that is as faithful as possible to what we understand by universal and unconditional basic income, with an amount equivalent to the poverty threshold, which in Catalonia is around 900 euros, and with as generous a sample as possible; we are thinking of 5000 people and that it will be in some communities based on conversations with some experts. The idea would be to think in localities, in towns, even in a neighbourhood of a city. It will be implemented over two years. Another thing is the time we need to design it. We are thinking of launching it in December 2022 and lasting for two years. After that there will be a period of analysis, evaluations, data extraction, etc. And it will be financed from the Generalitat’s budget; we don’t have the capacity to carry out a fiscal reform.

It is a fairly ambitious plan compared to others that have been implemented in recent years.

Regarding the indicators you are going to measure…

In the plans we have looked at, we have seen changes. In some of them, they are not isolated individuals, and in others, the people who have benefited do not know each other.

We have to analyse individual changes, for example, the improvement in mental health that has been observed in the majority of cases, changes in their life plans; they can dedicate more time to childcare, invest in training or join with others to do a project, a business, some form of cooperation…

However, changes at the community level have been better observed in some experiments such as those in India or Namibia, where a basic income has been granted to entire villages.

People like Guy Standing have shown that it would be interesting to take this factor into account in the context of a country of a region of the world like Catalonia. We believe that this has not been done. However, there is the precedent of Dauphin in Canada in the 1970s.

There we found interesting data in this sense, despite the differences that we may have, because it was a complement of income. But we were able to see important changes in that population, thanks to Evelyn Forget’s research.

All of this is what we are going to try to implement here in Catalonia. Beforehand, we have to select localities that can be as representative as possible of the population [living here]. Taking into account the limitations that must also be put on the table. In this, we have to be honest. We have to show that a pilot plan already starts from a series of limitations. One of them is that there is not going to be a fiscal reform, there is not going to be a redistribution of wealth, we are not going to see a reduction in social inequalities, we are not going to see how income is redistributed among the neediest people.

Speaking of where, in what kind of localities do you plan to apply it?

We would like them to be as representative as possible of the different social and economic sectors of Catalonia. A territory where there is an industrial sector; in an agricultural sector; in another with more services or tourism; in a neighbourhood… more inland, a more urban territory… to see the different changes that take place in very different areas when you assign a universal and unconditional benefit to an entire population, when people’s material subsistence is guaranteed.

And this is very suggestive from the outset. To see what changes can be produced at the community level, habits of social cohesion, participation in projects, to see how people can group together to do certain things; what changes can be made in terms of education, in terms of care for the elderly or for children…. In short, all these types of dynamics that can be very interesting and, unlike what we are currently observing with people who are receiving conditional benefits, who have not managed to get out of poverty either; some people are also unable to complement it with some type of employment because they are incompatible benefits.

Are you going to introduce some kind of “filter” to facilitate the analysis of the conclusions you are talking about?

To be able to see what happens if we take a given territory and everybody gets paid; or to start by looking at which people in that territory have a higher income and ask ourselves, are those people going to get paid or can we save it and give it to more people? Because if we want to replicate the financing model established, for example, by Jordi Arcarons, Lluis Torrens and Daniel Raventós, in which the richest 20% would lose out to the remaining 80%, we would not be able to apply it as it is.

This brings us back to the financing of the Plan. Can you explain it a little more?

Catalonia, being an Autonomous Community of Spain, does not have the possibility to enact tax reforms. Central Government doesn’t allow us, we would have to be independent, we would have to have our own State, we don’t have a Ministry of Finance. This does not allow us to make tax changes so that the richest pay for a basic income.

So we have two options: either we give it to everybody and the rich complement more money than they have; or we see who is the richest 20% in this community and we don’t allocate the basic income to them. That is a possibility. I am not saying that is what we are going to do, it is a possibility that is on the table at the moment. This is not to put conditions on people, but to assess whether we play this card or not.

From here, we will see what other problems may arise. For example, what happens to the people who are currently receiving the Guaranteed Citizen Income in Catalonia; what happens to these people if we give them some money. Are we going to screw them over? Because the current system prevents them from receiving more income than the guaranteed income. What are we going to do here? We will have to negotiate with the Department that allocates this social benefit and ensure that these people are not going to be harmed. We are talking about an experiment; it is not the basic income applied in a future world that we would like. We are talking about an experiment with all the legal limitations, legal counter-responsibilities and all these stories that could make a mess of things. We will also have to see who is registered in the municipality in question, if there are people who are left out, people in an irregular situation… All these situations are what we also have to study on the ground.

For this, we know that you have surrounded yourself with a multidisciplinary team to work with. What are their characteristics?

They are people with very varied profiles, from different disciplines. We are going to have people from the legal field, sociology, economics, data analysts, people who are going to be in charge of the proposal’s communication tasks. This is one of the aspects that we consider fundamental, because during all this time we will have to try to explain what basic income is, disseminate it, explain what the project is going to consist of… And all this is going to involve a very important communication task. In addition, we will also have experts who participated in the B-Mincome project in Barcelona.

We have to ask you about the relationship between precariousness and mental illness, something you are a specialist in and which has become much more evident with the pandemic.

Basically, I think that the pandemic has shown aspects that are fundamental. The first is the fact of being able to have economic security and how this makes it easier for people to cope with situations that arise, for example, from a pandemic situation like the one we have experienced, and in which you can be left with nothing from one day to the next. And this is a very serious situation, which many people have suffered and which clearly affects mental health; this uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen, if you are going to lose your job, if you are going to lose the little you have, or not being able to have an income due to self-isolating; not being able to go out on the street, not being able to sell your products… for all the people who have itinerant jobs, it has been tremendous.

And then there are all the precarious situations that we are dragging along with us such as precarious jobs, situations that are dragging on from crisis to crisis… Many people haven’t managed to get over the last crisis in 2008 and we have once again suffered a very strong crisis, on a different level, but which is causing many people to see that their jobs are unstable, precarious, with temporary contracts, that they cannot embark on projects, that they cannot start a life apart from their parents, many young people have temporary contracts. They live in precarious situations.

There are many situations that are very difficult to summarise now. But it is true that it has affected large groups of the population: young people, women who have had to work double shifts; working from home in houses of just a few square metres, having to combine employment with domestic work, which has fallen mainly on women. Also, health workers, who have had to face very long working hours (there are some reports that say that they are the most mentally affected group) … all of this is taking its toll.

If we add to all the people who already had a diagnosed or undiagnosed disorder, that most of them already had very precarious jobs, and we add the crisis of the dimensions we have experienced, we find ourselves with worse mental health indicators: more anxiety problems, addictions, depression, consumption of anti-anxiety drugs, suicide attempts, etc. All of these indicators have worried many institutions and finally there is an attempt to provide more money for mental health and more psychologists. But these are patches because it is not preventive. Those of us who work in the field of mental health understand the importance of the social determinants of health and of putting certain factors in place to prevent these situations. And one of them is to have a guaranteed income that allows you to have a network of protections for when pandemic situations arrive. Unfortunately, this is not going to be the last one we are going to suffer.

A more personal question: Why do you do this?

For many years, apart from being committed to the issue of basic income since the origins of the basic income association, since I was young, I have been concerned about social issues, the existing inequality between rich and poor and how the world we live in is badly structured, badly designed. In this sense, basic income began to be seen as a proposal that could provide a solution to a series of problems. Of course, it is far from being a solution to all of them. No, because there are problems of an environmental nature, of a feminist nature, of migration… there are so many things that go beyond basic income, but it was understood or we understood that it is a proposal that could solve a series of issues that we have in our societies. Among them, it can put an end to poverty from an economic point of view, and it can help people to have more freedom to plan their lives; to be able to do other things that do not always involve increasingly precarious employment and lives condemned to begging, to having to beg for benefits, to beg for contracts, and so on.

So, I was saying, this proposal appeared which, analysed from many angles, philosophical, political, social… it is a very suggestive proposal at this level of providing solutions.

Do you want to add something to conclude?

It is true that we have made progress with the idea: the collection of signatures at European level, the proposal of a Civil Law Initiative in the Basque Country, this pilot experience… But the issue is there: we have not managed to put an end to poverty and this must force us to rethink the fact that conditional incomes are not a solution to all the problems of precariousness and poverty. And, therefore, we have to go a step further, and this step is a proposal as interesting as the basic income.