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What happened when Irish taxpayers paid artists £280 a week for a year (no strings attached)

Conor Matthews
Conor Matthews, a writer, was able to leave his job as a hotel porter to focus on creative endeavours due to the funding - Patrick Bolger

The last few years haven’t been easy for Conor Matthews. As a writer and creative struggling to make ends meet while pursuing paid work, he found himself on benefits.

He was pushed to take any job he could find and moved on to do night shifts as a porter at a hotel. The job was so draining that he had little energy left to pursue his passions.

“I was feeling extremely anxious,” he says.

Just as he felt his prospects in life were dwindling, he was handed a lifeline. The Irish government selected him as one of the participants in a basic income pilot scheme for artists and those working in the creative sector.

More than 9,000 people applied and 2,000 were randomly selected to receive €325 (£280) a week for three years, from August 2022 to 2025 – with no conditions attached. Among those selected were more than 700 visual arts, 584 musicians, 204 working in film and 184 writers. Others worked in theatre, dance, architecture.

When he got the funding, Matthews quit his job as a porter and increased the amount of time he spent on his projects from four to 20-odd hours a week. He now has agency representation and grant funding for an audio drama on Spotify.

Matthews, 34, says the past year has been the “most productive, enlightening and promising” of his life.

“It’s definitely a relief,” he says. “You just feel valued. It’s just more manageable. I’m not resting on my laurels. It’s essentially the closest you can get to saying you’re a full-time writer.”

Matthews, from Leixlip in County Kildare, is not the only creative to report a boost to their mental health as a result of the pilot scheme.

Reports published by the Irish government last month showed a decrease in anxiety and depression among recipients during the first six months of the payments. Those selected worked fewer hours in other sectors and invested more time and money into their arts practice.

As part of the pilot scheme, they have to fill out surveys with a range of questions about how they spend their time and money.

Experiences of depression and anxiety decreased by 10 percentage points when compared with the control group. Recipients were 3.6 percentage points less likely to have felt depressed or anxious “all the time” and 19.2 percentage points less likely to have difficulty making ends meet.

The scheme’s main objective was to address the financial instability faced by many working in the arts. In September 2020, the Irish government set up an arts and culture taskforce to look at how the sector could adapt and recover from the pandemic. Its top recommendation was a three-year basic income pilot.

Some €25m in funding was set aside to cover the costs. To be eligible, artists and creatives had to show they were professionals and produce evidence such as previous grant funding, exhibitions and publications of their work.

An income to replace jobs taken over by AI

Basic income trials have surged in recent years, with the pandemic proving to be a catalyst for their adoption in many countries.

Ireland is one of four internationally that focuses on artists. Other schemes have offered universal payments to everyone living in a particular area, or targeted people with specific backgrounds such as prison leavers.

Guy Standing, an economist and co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, says there are currently more than 150 basic income pilots and experiments taking place around the world.

Around 100 of them are in the US, but there are others in Germany, South Korea, India, Kenya and Catalonia.

Closer to home, Wales has its own government-funded scheme, with payments targeted towards care leavers. Proposals for a pilot in England were outlined last year by the Autonomy think tank, but funding is yet to be secured.

Cleo Goodman, a basic income expert at the Autonomy think tank, says: “The reason that basic income remains a compelling idea is perhaps a result of the pandemic and bigger groups of people seeing, for the first time, the gaps in the social security system and safety net that we’re supposed to have in this country.”

She says advancements in artificial intelligence have also sparked fears that jobs may be replaced by robots, resulting in mass unemployment and economic downsides.

“If we had a basic income and unconditional payment that you’d be able to depend on, regardless of your employment status, you could do meaningful and important work and have a lot more flexibility in that,” she says.

“Basic income is an opportunity to turn changes in the labour market due to AI into something that works for people and for society, rather than just for the people making the profits off of that automation.”

Standing says people have found themselves in increasingly precarious work situations as the world of work has changed in recent decades. Gone are the days when people would have the same job for years and years – many have temporary, flexible labour contracts and lack the same type of security that was once available.

Although basic income schemes vary, there are some findings that come up time and time again. Standing says the most common and pronounced one is a reduction in stress and depression.

A pilot in Manitoba, Canada, also found that this contributed to a reduction in public health expenditure.

“That sort of feedback is very rarely acknowledged by critics,” Standing says. “You can’t just talk about the actual costs, you’ve got to think about the feedback effects of reducing public expenditure on health and so on.”

Another frequent finding, which can seem counterintuitive, is an increase in work rather than a reduction. In the Irish case, it has resulted in people doing more of the work they’re trained and qualified to do and less of the other things that they do “just to survive”, Standing says.

‘I quit my job and now make art full time’

Elinor O'Donovan
Elinor O'Donovan said the funding scheme gave her breathing space while also enabling her to work more - Dan Linehan

Elinor O’Donovan, a visual artist in Cork, says the Irish scheme has had a huge impact on her “well-being”.

Since she finished her art degree in 2019, she had been working part-time as a receptionist to help cover her bills, while the bulk of her artistic income came from grant funding for interdisciplinary projects.

She has since left her receptionist job and is now making art full-time.

“It can be quite easy to worry about the future in this line of work,” she says. “You have to think about the plans that you have coming up a year or two years or three years down the line. This just gives me a chance to breathe and say, ‘Okay, well, I know I’ve got this money coming in.’

“I definitely don’t feel like I’m working any less than I was before. If anything, I feel like I’m working more, but it just means that I’m not so worried.”

O’Donovan, 27, has also used the income to hire other artists to work with her on some projects, such as a film, which she describes as a kind of circular economy.

“When you work as an artist, a lot of the work that you do is quite precarious,” she says. “You spend a lot of time writing funding applications, hoping that you might get funding to put towards your projects, but it doesn’t always come through. The work that you spend on the applications themselves is unpaid labour.”

Gearoid O’Dea, a 35-year-old painter in Dublin, says his income was very unstable before the scheme.

He still works part-time doing building maintenance work but has reduced his hours so he can spend more time in his studio.

Gearoid O'Dea
Gearoid O'Dea said the smaller scale of the arts ecosystem in Ireland means funding is often more scarce - Patrick Bolger

O’Dea says there are good months but then others “where you’re actually earning nothing”.

“Dublin is such a small art ecosystem relative to London,” he says.

“You have to be paid for the work you’re doing – I’m not just talking about selling work, I’m talking about bursaries, I’m talking about artists fees within galleries – all of that is relatively minimal in Dublin and throughout Ireland. When something is giving you that little bit of a safety rail, it’s massive.”

Even though O’Dea has received arts council funding, he says the process can be tough and skewed to benefit those who are academically proficient. O’Dea says he is dyslexic and performs better in interview and presentation formats.

‘Taxpayers should understand where their money is going’

One photographer in Dublin, who asked to remain anonymous, says some creatives who did not get the funding were disappointed and did not think the system was fair.

“When I got it I was very excited,” he says. “I told some people who were angry about it, because photography has a broad commercial appeal whereas oil painting doesn’t. Of the people that got on scheme, I know people that are in pop bands that tour and were able to apply and get on it. I can understand the resentment – that caused a bit of stress.”

Some of his friends have not told people they’ve received the funding as a result. But he thinks the recipients should be made public so taxpayers understand where their money is going.

He has seen the benefits of the payments for himself and others in the arts and culture sector, but recognises that it may be difficult to justify the ongoing payments. “It’s such a tricky one,” he says. “It gets tied up in a culture war.”

He says some people may wonder why painters, writers and photographers should get special treatment when things are so hard for everyone at the moment.

Flaws in the scheme

Although basic incomes are sometimes painted as a left-wing idea, Standing says free marketeers are also among its advocates.

Economist Milton Friedman joined the Basic Income Earth Network several years before he died in 2006.

“He recognised that for an efficient market economy, people must have a sense of basic security in which to make choices,” Standing says. “If you’re chronically insecure, you can’t make choices.”

He says he has been invited to Silicon Valley and Davos to discuss the idea with people who would typically be considered Conservatives.

A big sticking point is how to pay for them. The dream for most advocates is that pilots can pave the way for a universal basic income that gives everyone an unconditional cash payment each month.

He argues that costs could be saved by axing red tape for benefit schemes, saying “incredible administrative inefficiency” is rife throughout the welfare system.

“Universal Credit is the most administratively complex social policy in the history of Britain, and it involves a vast number of bureaucrats operating a very vindictive scheme, which punishes people,” he claims.

The problem with means testing, he argues, is that there are always gaps and people who need support end up missing out.

When Matthews was receiving benefits, he says he spent a lot of time going to meetings and defending himself. “You’re already starting from a place of accusation, a place of, ‘you need to justify to me why you should get something that will help you live,’” he says.

The welfare state can also trap people in poverty. “You only get a benefit if you’re poor and you lose that benefit if you are no longer poor,” Standing says.

“Therefore, you have no incentive to take a low wage job because you will lose almost as much as you would gain by taking that job.”

However, Ireland’s UBI trial has not been without its flaws. The basic income counts as a benefit, so there have been instances of disabled recipients getting their health benefits reduced, leaving them worse off than able-bodied participants.

Concerns have also been raised about the prospect of basic income being inflationary, particularly if it were scaled up to a universal programme.

Critics fear paying everyone – or a group of society – a fixed sum without any conditions would increase demand for goods and services, fuelling price rises and therefore the cost of living.

But Standing says this depends on other economic factors. “If you’re operating with supply constraints, then it will have an inflationary impact,” he says.

“If you’re operating where supply can increase if demand increases, which is what the market economy is meant to do, then there’s no inflationary effect.”

It also depends on how the scheme is paid for. Standing advocates cutting tax breaks that mainly benefit the wealthy and pollution taxes as two ways of generating funds to pay for such a scheme.

In this case, he says “you’re shifting money from one hand to another hand” rather than simply increasing the money supply.

He adds: “But there’s also a statement by John Maynard Keynes, the most famous British economist, who said that anything we really need we can afford.”

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