Advocates for basic income have long argued that it is much more than just a poverty relief measure. It is a matter of common justice that would enhance freedom and provide basic security for all. A new survey across six major European countries shows that people understand its potential to improve their lives. Not only do large majorities in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain favour basic income pilots and basic income as a permanent policy. The survey also reveals the advantages people believe a basic income would bring for themselves.
The poll, conducted independently by YouGov, found that two-thirds or more of respondents in the six countries were in favour of pilots and a national basic income system. Excluding the few ‘don’t knows’, support ranged from 65% in France to 87% in Portugal. Women were generally more supportive, particularly in Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
Even before the pandemic, European citizens were suffering from insecurity, stress and precarity, linked to rising inequalities. The pandemic has made things worse. In an era of shocks, policies to strengthen individual and societal resilience are vital. Instead, governments have resorted to measures aimed chiefly at propping up businesses, including furlough schemes, that have worsened inequalities and eroded resilience.
Resilience means being able to handle and recover from shocks. It is about feeling in control, able to handle setbacks because we can envisage a better future. But it cannot be provided by today’s labour market, increasingly characterised by flexible labour relations, insecure jobs and fluctuating wages, or by existing welfare systems, or by better public services alone, even though those are needed.
The survey provides cogent support for arguments in favour of basic income. High proportions of respondents said a basic income would reduce anxiety – over half in Poland and Portugal, and more than 40% overall, especially among women and youth. It is now well established that chronic anxiety increases the risk of mental and physical illness. A basic income offers the prospect of reducing ill-health and demands on health services. It might almost pay for itself.
Respondents also believed a basic income would open up opportunities for a better way of living and working. A high proportion of youths and women said it would give them more financial independence – 50% of young Italians and 41% of young Germans, for instance. This would reduce their sense of precarity, the feeling of being a supplicant reliant on others for discretionary help.
One horror of the pandemic has been the surge in domestic violence. Experiments have shown that, once women have basic income security, domestic tensions decline and women are more likely to walk away from abusive relationships.
Many youths said a basic income would enable them to pursue further education or training, including 49% in Portugal, 53% in Spain and 27% in Germany. This reflects the current inability of the precariat to develop their capabilities in the way they choose, because they must take whatever job they can get and put in as many hours of labour as possible. Basic security is conducive to the development of skills and a more educated society.
A basic income would also improve the quality of living. Young people, in particular, said it would enable them to take part in leisure activities that they cannot afford to do now – about a third in Portugal and Spain, for example.
And a basic income would foster work beyond ‘jobs’. Men as well as women, among all age groups, said a basic income would enable them to devote more time to their family. This was the case for one in five in Germany and more than a quarter of both men and women in Poland. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the extent to which society suffers from a ‘care deficit’. And pilots have shown that a basic income encourages men to do more care work, helping to weaken the gender dualism that feminists rightly condemn.
Basic income would also foster a more entrepreneurial attitude. A significant proportion of respondents said it would encourage them to launch a small-scale business – 8% in Italy, 10% in France, 13% in Germany and 19% in Portugal. Entrepreneurial enthusiasm was even greater among youths – 14% in Italy, for instance. Many youths also said a basic income would enable them to devote more time to volunteering or social activism, including over a quarter of youths in Germany and 13% in France. Society surely wants more socially engaged and active youth.
One lesson surely learned during the pandemic is that most of us are vulnerable, not just to illness but also to shocks to our finances, relationships and lifestyles. In what was a cross-section of people in six relatively rich countries, only small minorities said a basic income would make little difference to their lives – 11% in Italy and 6% in Portugal, for example. Long-term basic security is still something most of us value.
We should implore European policymakers to launch basic income pilots in communities around Europe. Ideally, some courageous governments would move in the direction of a national system. But failing that, surely it is time for pilots to explore the transformative potential of basic income. According to this survey, over 70% of Europeans want them.
Guy Standing is Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London, and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network.
Editor: You can support basic income in Europe by adding your name to the European Citizen’s Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income and WeMove/UBIE’s petitions for pilots of basic income and for the EU to enable member states to implement an Emergency Basic Income during the crisis.