United States: After Delay, Y Combinator Research Presses on with Basic Income Study

United States: After Delay, Y Combinator Research Presses on with Basic Income Study

Sam Altman. Picture credit to: San Francisco Chronicle.


Y Combinator (YC) Research will begin its basic income study in 2019 after regulatory hurdles slowed a pilot program in Oakland, California.

The proposed study, entitled “Making Ends Meet,” will provide monthly cash transfers of $1,000  to 1,000 participants for three or five years. Another 2,000 people will serve as a control group and receive monthly transfers of $50 for the duration of the study. As reported by Wired , the experiment will take place across two states with the exact locations to be decided in the upcoming months.

As outlined in their project proposal , YC Research’s basic income study will assess the effects of unconditional cash transfers on a variety of factors including time use, objective and subjective well-being, and financial health. The study will be administered by staff at Y Combinator Research in collaboration with the University of Michigan Survey Research Center.

Y Combinator Research is the non-profit research arm of start-up accelerator, Y Combinator. In 2016, Y Combinator president Sam Altman posted a “Request for Research”  in which he forecast the need for a universal basic income (UBI) in an increasingly automated future: “I am fairly confident that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we’re going to see some version of this at a national scale.”

In September 2016, YC Research initiated a pilot study in Oakland to evaluate experimental design in preparation for the full-scale study. Although the pilot was intended to enroll approximately 100 participants, it ultimately included fewer than ten people as bureaucratic obstacles slowed the study’s implementation. The researchers encountered difficulties in trying to ensure that participants would still receive means-tested support payments as their nominal incomes were increased through receipt of cash transfers.

Elizabeth Rhodes

Elizabeth Rhodes

YC Research’s study will go ahead even as other UBI trials have been cancelled in recent months. In Ontario (Canada), a new administration led by premier Doug Ford, prematurely cancelled a basic income trial earlier this year , and in Finland, a highly-publicized trial has been refused future funding.

Despite the cancellation and discontinuation of government-led trials in Canada and Finland, other studies in the United States are still on course. The Economic Security Project, led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, has plans for a basic income trial in Stockton, California and Greg Duncan, at the University of California, is organizing a long-term study of cash transfers to low-income mothers, under the name “Baby’s First Years.”

These trials will not be the first studies of UBI in the United States. Beginning in the 1960s, four Negative Income Tax (NIT) trials were conducted in the U.S. as new forms of welfare provision, attracted attention across the political spectrum. Although the trials represented a milestone in experimental social science at the time, their results were subject to differing interpretations by the media, politicians, and participating researchers. Some results, such as a reported increase in divorce rate – a result which was not replicated and has subsequently been disputed – were used to discredit basic income as a legitimate alternative to traditional welfare programs.

The current trials proposed by YC Research, the Economic Security Project, and Greg Duncan will mark a new chapter in the study of basic income in the United States. Unlike earlier studies and recent efforts in Ontario and Finland, the American studies will be privately funded and thereby insulated from changes in government policy which have hindered state-sponsored projects.

As UBI attracts increased attention in the political sphere, long-term studies like the proposed YC Research project will be necessary to assess competing claims about the effects of cash transfer programs in different social and economic contexts.


More information at:

Nitasha Tiku, “Y Combinator learns basic income is not so basic after all”, Wired, August 27th 2018

Kate McFarland, “Ontario, Canada: New Government declares early end of guaranteed income experiment”, Basic Income News, August 2nd 2018

John Henley, “Finland to end basic income trial after two years”, The Guardian, April 23rd 2018

Kate McFarland, “Stockton, CA, US: New details revealed in planned basic income demonstration”, Basic Income News, 23rd August 2018

Karl Widerquist, “The basic income guaranteed experiments of the 1970s: a quick summary of results”, Basic Income News, December 3rd 2017

Annie Lowrey: New book “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World”

Annie Lowrey: New book “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World”

In her recent work Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World (W.H. Allen), Atlantic writer Annie Lowrey offers a new account of the universal basic income (UBI) rooted in her experience as a global observer of geopolitics, economics, and social policy.

Lowrey approaches UBI as a potential tool to redress a variety of issues, including inequality, poverty, and technological unemployment, which have become increasingly divisive in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the recent boom in AI research.  By viewing human action rather than impartial circumstance as the primary driver of socio-political change, Lowrey concludes that UBI represents an “ethos” of universality, unconditionality, and inclusion as much as any concrete policy proposal.

In the opening chapter, Lowrey explores the relationship between basic income, work, and technological unemployment. After sketching the twinned histories of human advancement and the fear of technological unemployment, she examines why current innovations in AI might be qualitatively different from earlier achievements and why these differences may in fact lead to widespread joblessness.  Lowrey notes that certain Silicon Valley luminaries, whose own endeavours threaten the livelihood of many low-skilled workers, have promoted the UBI as a necessary social policy for a jobless future.

Despite calls by technologists for a UBI as a “social vaccine for the 21st Century,” Lowrey ultimately considers discussion of basic income in relation to future joblessness as premature. Although she grants that basic income could operate as an important vehicle of state provision in the future, Lowrey prefers to consider the UBI’s potential to address current social and economic problems.

These problems range from a labour market with stagnant wage growth in Houston to chronic poverty on the shores of Lake Victoria to the challenges of welfare reform in rural India. In each case, Lowrey unpacks how political choices, bureaucratic structures, and personal circumstance converge to prevent certain people from meeting their basic needs.

Through carefully examining different political, geographic, and economic contexts, Lowrey can assess the benefits and drawbacks of basic income proposals in a variety of contemporary settings. This approach accepts that any form of UBI would affect different communities and individuals in unique and perhaps unpredictable ways.

Give People Money distinguishes itself from other works on the topic through its commitment to personal narrative and Lowrey’s own experience with the people who stand to benefit from basic income proposals. Although she examines the ethical and economic justifications of UBI, her primary focus lies in the human story and the way she came to view UBI as an ethos of transformative social change. Give People Money ultimately advocates for UBI not by advancing specific policy initiatives, but by presenting basic income as an impetus to radically reconsider what humans owe one another and how the earth’s bounty ought to be shared.