UBI & Radical Theology: A UK Case Study

Martin Luther King’s Economic Bill of Rights for 21st Century with UBI at its heart

Martin Luther King - March on WashingtonIn the summer of 1967, Dr. King announced what was to be the most expansively radical adventure of his life – a national movement called the Poor People’s Campaign, mobilizing Black, White, Hispanic, Native American. It was to demand an annual $30bn federal investment to deliver full employment, guaranteed annual income, 300,000 units of low cost housing per year.  During the final year of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. strongly advocated for guaranteed income as ‘the solution to abolish poverty’. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration pushed for Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) and the House of Representatives even approved the proposal (but the Senate killed the bill).

The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. … We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

A host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.

There is nothing except short-sightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum – and liveable – income for every American family. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1968)

Today, UBI as we are coming to understand it, effectively speaks to Dr. King’s first two demands of the Economic Bill of Rights “A meaningful job at a living wage”  and  “A secure and adequate income” for all those unable to find or do a job.


Central to this concept is a radical theology which has been at the heart of social movements for centuries.  Dr. King’s own theory of change is founded upon his own radical theology as seen in his writings.

‘I read Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto years ago when I was a student in college. And many revolutionary movements in the world came into being as a result of what Marx talked about. The great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see it had a revolutionary edge. You don’t have to go to Karl Marx to learn how to be a revolutionary. I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx; I got if from a man named Jesus.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

The role of faith based groups, activism and public policy-making is vital to the discussions taking place in civil society and parliaments around the world. Faith narratives have much to contribute in offering positive and deeply embedded language about human dignity, human relationships and their meaning in shaping the human rights discourse. These components are important if we are to build a flourishing and prosperous society where all people have a sense of worth.

The secular world responds and respects this progressive, prophetic faith-in-action, not least since it has profoundly shaped and influenced our secular world for the better. For example, the UK Jubilee Debt Campaign and Tax Justice movements have woven a vital, radical biblical narrative through their activism, policy work and outreach. Faith based and non-faith based campaign groups forged alliances with churches to push for transformational debt cancellation, trade justice and tax justice.

In the UK, the UBI concept has been extensively worked on and one such expert is Dr Malcolm Torry.


A UK Perspective

Universal Basic Income is now being explored in various ways in numerous (cities of) countries: Canada, Finland, Netherlands, France, Kenya, India and Brazil, to name just a few.

The debate on citizen’s income has shifted from being a debate about its desirability to being one about its feasibility. The next stage might be a debate about how to implement it in the UK before everyone else beats us to it.’  

Dr.Malcolm Torry  Director, Citizen’s Income Trust

Dr. Malcolm Torry  is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Greenwich Peninsula in London. He is the Honorary Director of the UK’s Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT) and co-secretary of BIEN – the Basic Income Earth Network. BIEN was founded in 1986 to serve as a link between individuals and groups committed to or interested in basic income, and fosters informed discussion on this topic throughout Europe particularly, but is increasingly global as the concept takes hold.

christian-basic-incomeMalcolm Torry has first degrees in mathematics, theology, philosophy, and economics and management, and higher degrees in social policy and in theology. From May 2011 to April 2012 he was an honorary Visiting Research Fellow at the London School of Economics.

He has long researched and written many articles on the reform of the benefits system, and particularly the desirability and feasibility of increased coverage of unconditional and non-withdrawable benefits; the characteristics and management of religious and faith-based organisations.

He recently organised a special event for the UK’s Labour Party Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on the subject of Universal Basic Income.

Universal Basic Income – A Christian Social Policy

A Universal Basic Income is an unconditional, nonwithdrawable income paid automatically to every individual as a right of citizenship. It can be formulated and funded in a variety of national-specific ways and is being trialed in many places around the world.

The amount of the Citizen’s Basic Income would vary with age (elderly people would receive more than working age adults, and children and young people less), but the amount would not vary in relation to any other conditions; it would be paid automatically, normally once a week or once a month; it would not be withdrawn as earnings, other income, or wealth, increased; it would be paid to each individual, rather than to couples or households; and it would be received by everyone legally resident.

A Universal Basic Income scheme would:

  • Create a secure financial platform on which all citizens would be free to build;
  • Enable households to lift themselves out of poverty, because for anyone currently on means-tested benefits – whether out-of-work benefits or in-work ‘tax credits’ marginal deduction rates would be lower than they are now, so additional earned income would result in more additional net income;
  • Boost employment incentives: another effect of the reduction in marginal deduction rates for people currently on means-tested benefits;
  • Bring about social cohesion. Everybody would be entitled to a Citizen’s Basic Income and everybody would pay tax on all or most other income;
  • Be affordable within current revenue and expenditure constraints;
  • Be easy to understand. It would be a universal entitlement based on citizenship that is non-contributory, non-means-tested, and non-taxable;
  • Be cheap to administer and easy to automate;
  • End perverse incentives that discourage savings (savings reduce means-tested state pensions, so means-tested pensions discourage saving for retirement).

As early as 1985, the Church of England Faith in the City – A Call to Action report recommended that serious consideration should be given to Citizen’s Basic Income as a solution to the problems of poverty and unemployment.

Universal Basic Income is a Christian Social Policy. The concept being Basic Income is an ‘act of grace’, meaning unconditional love and favour that is not limited by conditions or good behavior.  It is akin to an ‘act of kindness’. ‘Grace’ pushes back against the world’s understanding and definition of what is fair. It refuses to play by the loaded rules of reciprocity, fairness, and evenhandedness

In a UBI context, living out a Christian definition of Grace means an unconditional income paid automatically to every individual as a right of citizenship and would operates on a similar principle to the British National Health Service – free at point of use for every legal resident.

A Christian methodology for Universal Basic Income is to understand the core Christian values and principles to:

  • celebrate God-given abundance,
  • be an act of grace,
  • recognise our individuality,
  • recognise God’s equal treatment of us,
  • provide for the poor,
  • not judge,
  • constantly forgive,
  • ensure that workers would be paid for their work,
  • be the basis of a covenant,
  • inspire us to be co-creators,
  • understand both our original righteousness and our original corruption,
  • recognise our mutual dependency,
  • facilitate a more just society,
  • promote liberty,
  • both relativise and enhance the family,
  • facilitate the duty to serve,
  • be welcoming and hospitable,
  • and be an act of love.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  (1 John 4:7-11)

Universal Basic Income is a Christian social policy, and perhaps the most Christian social policy possible. The methods by which we might pay for Citizen’s Basic Incomes could be equally Christian.

Note: The above text is adopted from Citizen’s Basic Income – A Christian Social Policy by Malcolm Torry. Anyone who wants to dig deeper into the Christian aspect of Universal Basic Income should consult the book.