'Artists who are at their wits' end can’t afford another glitzy policy announcement': Basic Income for Artists Needs More Scrutiny

The recent New Music Dublin festival, which took place entirely online. There is still no clear government plan for the return of live music. (Photo: Molly Keane)

'Artists who are at their wits' end can’t afford another glitzy policy announcement': Basic Income for Artists Needs More Scrutiny

The basic income for artists was recommended in a government report last November, but since then progress has been sluggish and the ideas need much more scrutiny, writes Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD.

Our artistic community is in an unprecedented crisis. It is over a year since the arts and entertainment industry was closed, and there is still no clear timeline for when it will be allowed to reopen. The response from government has been inadequate, characterised by big announcements followed by little or no follow through.

Among the many important recommendations made by the Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce last November was its headline proposal for a Universal Basic Income pilot scheme for artists, in line with the Programme for Government’s commitment to trial UBI within five years. The National Campaign for the Arts, which has campaigned for the UBI, briefed my Sinn Féin colleagues and I recently on their sincere hope that this could bring great benefit to a sector characterised by precarious work.

Let me be clear: I will support any initiative that would ensure that artists and arts workers, most of whom were struggling financially even before the pandemic, can survive.

I know personally from my own siblings and parents the struggles to be both financially secure and a full-time artist, and how it is near impossible to do so without a part-time or other full-time job, inheritance, or being famous enough to attract lucrative commissions. I approach my work as Sinn Féin spokesperson for Gaeilge, the Gaeltacht, Arts and Culture with this in mind: for me, the arts are personal.

I am in complete agreement with the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin, therefore, when she outlined in her Journal.ie article on 20 March that ‘We can’ –  and we should – ‘protect our artists by covering their basic living costs’. It is a question of how, and if the taskforce recommendation is the right way.

Is a Universal Basic Income for artists the answer?
The intention behind promoting the Universal Basic Income for artists is laudable, and I won’t oppose it, but I don’t believe it will fully address the issues of those sectors in society who live in near poverty or who are dependent on social welfare payments, and the arts is a sector particularly characterised by precarity of employment.

Minister Martin’s own Green Party colleague and co-author of their policy on UBI, Neasa Hourigan TD, admitted in an Irish Times Inside Politics podcast on 5 February,UBI isn’t really for the people at the very lowest rung’ and would only make sense in tandem with universal healthcare, affordable housing, and workers’ rights that end the gig economy, which we don’t yet have.

The UBI for artists proposal as outlined in the taskforce report would see the poorest arts workers have to give up their main social welfare payment in order to receive the UBI payment, while those already earning – including millionaire artists – would get the same payment from the state without giving up any income. The divide between wealthier artists and those most vulnerable would grow, putting those starting off or struggling in the industry at an added disadvantage.

I am keen to engage constructively with the debate on an arts-specific basic income, but key issues like this need addressing.

For example, the UBI as proposed means giving Bono the option of an extra €325 a week on top of his income, no strings attached. No offence to Bono, but as Oxford Professor Ian Goldin put it on the same Inside Politics podcast, giving extra money to millionaires would be ‘morally reprehensible’ and leads to ‘growing inequality and poverty’. Concerns about UBI’s broader potential to increase inequality and undermine workers’ rights are explained well by Anna Coote and Edanur Yazici of the New Economics Foundation in their 2019 report Universal Basic Income: A Union Perspective, which I would encourage anyone interested in the topic to read.

Of course, a sector-specific basic income for the arts may not have the same flaws as a Universal Basic Income, but it is intended as a pilot to be extended to all of society, at which point inflationary pressures could drive up prices and wipe out the gains expected from the UBI. If a landlord knows all tenants are earning an extra €325 a week, for example, what is to stop them hiking rent up by €325? Ensuring the basic income is index-linked might be a way to help safeguard against inflation.

Another worry is that the payment provided won’t cover the basic living costs of artists. The arts taskforce report used the minimum wage as the guideline figure, but we know that the minimum wage in this state is not sufficient to cover the high rent and living costs people face today.

This is why Sinn Féin has consistently called for a living wage for all workers and included proposals for a living wage pilot specifically for the arts sector in our 2020 general election manifesto, in recognition of the special role the arts have in Irish society. We welcome that the government has recently decided to look at how a living wage should be designed, but this needs to be done with the context of arts work in mind too.

The main difference between our 2020 proposal and the UBI was that our living wage would be a targeted top-up payment to raise the living standards of artists currently earning under the amount needed to live a decent life, instead of providing the same payment to all workers in the sector, rich or poor.

Regardless of which model is chosen, it is imperative that no worker is left unable to meet basic living costs.

Costings and scrutiny 
What is important is that artists are finally given help. Artists who are at their wits’ end can’t afford another glitzy policy announcement that raises artists hopes but never sees the light of day. While much was made of the government announcement that they are looking at the UBI, there has been no discernible movement on its delivery.

We learned only recently through parliamentary questions that the basic income for artists proposal is now being developed separately to the UBI pilot scheme commitment in the Programme for Government that the Low Pay Commission will look into. Until then we had been told they were one and the same.

On the face of it, this is a welcome development, as it suggests the government has realised that artists’ urgent need for concrete supports must take priority over designing a more complex Universal Basic Income experiment that could take years to develop, and this could help ensure that the potential pitfalls outlined above are avoided.

It is also, however, yet another example of the drip feed of details we’re getting that means discussion on this proposal is taking place in an information vacuum. Take, for instance, the Minister’s other recent announcement that the long-awaited Oversight Group has finally been set up. This was let slip in an Oireachtas Committee meeting, with no mention of when it was established, if minutes will be made public, or when it is expected to complete its work.

We could still be talking months, if not years, before artists see a penny, so serious scrutiny and costings must be done now to ensure this eventually bears fruit and is not discarded. This is by no means a quick-fix response to Covid, but a long-term restructuring of how we fund the arts that we need to get right.

We need a clear outline, for example, of what constitutes an artist, who will be eligible, and how much they will receive.

The taskforce proposal was vague, using what was described in the Irish Times on 21 November as ‘back-of-the-envelope’ costings. If we don’t get the numbers right early on, especially if we are talking tens of millions of euro, the idea will be laughed out of the Department of Finance and artists will have to go without once more. 

We also need to ensure any policy is evidence-based. Our arts industry is too important to be used as a guinea pig for untested experimental economics, so we must make sure this policy stands up to scrutiny.

We still have much to learn about what is actually being proposed, and while this policy undergoes the necessary scrutiny and planning, it is essential that hardship funding be given to help struggling arts workers and businesses pay bills and meet mortgage repayments.

The Minister must act now if we still want there to be an arts sector to reopen after this pandemic.  

Published on 6 May 2021

Aengus Ó Snodaigh is the Sinn Féin spokesperson for Gaeilge, the Gaeltacht, Arts and Culture.

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