Guaranteed minimum income needed to cure loneliness epidemic after COVID-19 - Helen Clark Foundation

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark has thrown her support behind calls for a guaranteed minimum income as a "buffer against the effects of not only economic recession, but also high levels of loneliness, isolation, and psychological distress".

The recommendation comes in a new report from her think-tank, the Helen Clark Foundation, and engineering, design and environmental firm WSP - Alone Together: The risks of loneliness in Aotearoa New Zealand following COVID-19 and how public policy can help - authored by former Green Party MP Holly Walker. 

"Loneliness and the negative impacts of social isolation have a huge impact on society and, while they can affect anyone, it is often the most vulnerable or marginalised that are impacted the most," said Clark, who was Prime Minister between 1999 and 2008. 

"Having tackled a global pandemic as a united country, we have a unique opportunity to address this issue on a number of fronts to rebuild a better and stronger Aotearoa."

The first in a series of papers focused on New Zealand's post-pandemic future, in Alone Together Walker says the lockdown "significantly exacerbated the risks of loneliness, both during the immediate period of enforced isolation, and as communities transition out of isolation with new social distancing requirements and altered social norms".

She outlines three different types of loneliness - emotional, social and existential. 

  • Emotional: "Those who lost loved ones to the virus (fortunately a small number in New Zealand, but still significant for those impacted) and those whose loved ones died of other causes and who weren’t able to mourn in the usual way likely experienced heightened emotional loneliness."
  • Social: "The enforced social isolation and sudden loss of the latter social networks during the level 4 lockdown put many people at greater risk of developing feelings of social loneliness."
  • Existential: "For many, loss of employment, uncertainty of income, and witnessing the distressing global impact of COVID-19 is also likely to have contributed increasing feelings of existential loneliness."

All three can contribute to a shortened lifespan according to research cited in the report, because people who feel alone are stressed - their flight-or-fight response constantly on - leading to "feelings of panic and urgency, leaving us prone to anxiety and depression".

"Physiologically, these effects of loneliness can accrue over time to accelerate the process of ageing...  cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, dementia, and hormonal imbalances."

Walker outlines six ways loneliness can be reduced - the number one being a guaranteed minimum income, which is similar to a universal basic income (UBI). 

"Loneliness is clearly linked to income and employment status. Given the mass loss of both income and employment caused by COVID-19, ensuring people have stable, sufficient income and employment opportunities will be critical to buffer against the effects of not only economic recession, but also high levels of loneliness, isolation, and psychological distress."

Holly Walker and Helen Clark.
Holly Walker and Helen Clark. Photo credit: Holly Walker/Twitter/Reuters

Though UBI proposals differ, the basic idea is that everyone gets a set amount of money each week or month, regardless of how much they earn. It has support from people on both sides of politics - the left like it because it removes barriers to much-needed support and encourages bosses to treat their workers well or see them leave; the right likes it because it could replace unwieldy and expensive welfare programmes, reducing inefficient bureaucracy.

Critics say a UBI would result in fewer people bothering to get jobs. There's been limited real-world research into whether this is the case, but the evidence so far suggests it doesn't - in fact, a Finnish study found unemployed people who received a regular payment, regardless of whether they worked or not, ended up working more than those stuck on traditional unemployment benefits

The lucky participants of the study who received the UBI also reported improved mental health, cognitive functioning and - unsurprisingly - better finances. 

"We recommend that the government implement an effective guaranteed minimum income for all New Zealanders to enable everyone to live with dignity," Walker's report says.

Another UBI study, this one looking at a few different trials around the world, concluded it couldn't work at scale - if truly universal, a UBI would end up sucking funding away from schemes the poor relied on - exacerbating inequalities rather than ending them. The researchers said the Finnish study mentioned above was flawed in that it wasn't actually universal - only being given to 2000 people out of a population of 5.5 million.

man on bench all alone
Loneliness - a worsening epidemic. Photo credit: Getty

It's not clear how bad unemployment will get in New Zealand, but there have been reports of double-digit increases in applications for jobseeker benefits and Treasury's tipped the unemployment rate will peak at around 9.8 percent

Years of predictions technology will take away thousands of jobs have proven to be false so far, with unemployment reaching a decade-low in the months before the pandemic hit. UBI supporters - including many Silicon Valley bosses - have often said the automation of the workforce would result in massive unemployment, requiring the implementation of a UBI.

Walker's former party, the Greens, have a policy of working "towards" a UBI system. Its highest-profile backers in New Zealand politics would be the Opportunities Party, which is suggesting a $13,000 annual UBI for adults and $2080 for kids. 

"It will be necessary for the Government to continue to stabilise people's incomes and create meaningful employment opportunities for some time," Walker says in the report.

The other five recommendations to tackle loneliness, are: 

  • Close the digital divide: "We recommend that the government make the provision of high-speed internet access standard in all social housing tenancies."
  • Help communities do their magic: "We recommend that the Government establish a substantial community-led development fund to which community organisations can apply to support self-identified collective goals following COVID-19."
  • Create friendly streets and neighbourhoods: "We recommend that the Government model best-practice urban planning for social goals with projects led by Kāinga Ora, and that it uses the upcoming Government policy statement on housing and urban development to set clear expectations for how urban developments should prioritise social wellbeing. 

"We recommend that central and local government work with public transport providers to improve the design of buses and trains to encourage positive social interaction while minimising dangerous enforced proximity."

  • Prioritise those already lonely: "We recommend that when making decisions about services to support and allocating public funding for further research, policy-makers prioritise targeted interventions to alleviate loneliness among those at greatest risk."
  • Invest in frontline mental health: "We recommend that the Government boost the new frontline mental health service's funding and bring forward the date for its full implementation."

Alone Together is the first in a series of papers the Helen Clark Foundation plans to publish on the future of post-pandemic New Zealand. The second report, also done in partnership with WSP, is expected to focus on road safety and sustainability.