The Herald's Cooking the Books personal finance podcast is here to get you the tips you need to weather the financial storm. Hosted by Frances Cook, with a new expert on each episode.

An idea that's been kicking around in the shadows has stepped into the light lately – the idea of a universal basic income, or UBI.

It's the idea that you give an unconditional cash payment to everyone, whether they're working or not, and without means testing.


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Think of it like the pension – but for everyone.

Once considered fringe, it's increasingly being brought up in conversations about how to tackle inequality, and the increasing instability of work.

It has fans in Pope Francis and Mark Zuckerberg, and parts of Europe, including Italy and Spain, are trying out versions of it.

The idea is that a basic guaranteed level of income gives people the stability to make it through job changes, industry changes, or needing to upskill.

A safety net gives people more room to take risks, even giving some the breathing space to launch their own business, which could boost overall productivity in our economy.

But the devil is in the detail. While UBI is the idea that's successfully latched on to the public consciousness, there's more than one way to put one into practice.

Jess Berentson-Shaw, co-director of the think tank The Workshop, came on the latest Cooking the Books podcast to discuss the pros and cons.

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She said different types of universal basic income could be aimed at different social problems, and that was why people from across the political spectrum could be drawn to the idea.


"Is it a mechanism from which you can give people an amount of money each year and they would use that to explore all of their goals and their dreams, and you would get more innovation in society because of that?

"For other people they come from the perspective of if you're a sole parent and you're on a low income ... does that enable you to have more opportunities to support your children, and do the work of parenting well?"

Of course, it could be hideously expensive. The pension alone is expected to cost New Zealand $16 billion this financial year.

Estimates vary on what a UBI could cost us, but if it was about the same as NZ Super we're talking around $90 billion a year.

Berentson-Shaw said when considering a UBI it was important to work backwards, starting with the problem you wanted to solve.

Then you could decide if a UBI was the right tool to fix it, or if a more targeted version of it could work better, or whether you needed something else entirely.


"If your primary consideration is this idea of innovation, then through everyone having a guaranteed level of income then you release a whole lot of creativity in your society.

"Then possibly having a universal basic income is what you would think about.

"I think if you're more concerned with the existing inequities in society, you would probably look more at cash payments for specific groups who experience inequity, or who you know experience multiplying effects.

"Families with young children, you see an impact for parents themselves, and ... there would be a multiplier effect for both the families and the children."

Berentson-Shaw said there was also an argument that if you were trying to reduce inequality, you should instead increase the basic services provided by the Government so everyone had access to what they would need.

But that would require other major changes like considering housing a basic service from the Government.


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