Speenhamland, automation, and Basic Income: A response
In the final edition of Renewal for 2017 (issue 25.3-4), Frederick Pitts, Lorena Lombardozzi and Neil Warner suggest that the experience of the Speenhamland reforms of 1795 were ‘an experiment in a kind of basic income’.
It was not. It was an extension of poor relief to the working poor. The supplements paid out of the rates guaranteed a net income. They were definitely not a ‘Basic Income’. The difference is crucial. A guaranteed minimum income is a minimum income level below which a household’s income is not allowed to fall, and the payment made is designed to bring a household’s net income up to the specified level. The modern equivalents are Working Tax Credits and so-called Universal Credit. In Speenhamland the supplement paid out was designed to fill the gap between the worker’s earnings and a specified minimum income that was related to the size of the family and to the price of bread. The supplement was a means-tested benefit.
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