Taiwan is making history by sending out a one-time universal cash payment of $6,000 New Taiwan dollars (NTD) to every citizen “young and old.” This is the first time the country has implemented such a policy, and it comes as a result of excess tax revenue of $450 billion NTD, much of which is coming from corporate taxes that have seen record-high profits. $140 billion NTD will be dedicated to the cash payments, with the remainder going towards improving labor and health insurance systems and providing funding for local governments.
UBI Taiwan hailed the move as a victory for Taiwanese citizens, as the payment is unconditional and universal, meaning that everyone in the country will receive it, regardless of income or other circumstances. They said it reflects the growing demand that a greater proportion of Taiwan’s growth is shared with average families.
“This is a huge victory for the basic income movement,” UBI Taiwan founder Tyler Prochazka said.
UBI Taiwan promotes unconditional basic income (UBI) in Taiwan. UBI is a policy that periodically sends out unconditional cash payments to every citizen in a country regardless of an individual’s income or job status.
The organization has noted the problem of stagnant wages for the last two decades in the country and the rising cost of housing. Through basic income payments, they argue that many Taiwanese could pursue better opportunities and improve their education.
“Unconditional cash transfers are an efficient way to provide an ‘economic vaccination’ to make sure that everyone can face the future in a healthy and happy manner,” said Jiakuan Su, the new chairman of UBI Taiwan.
Over the last few years, Taiwan’s economy has experienced record-breaking 6.45% GDP growth in 2021 and over 8.73% growth in exports in 2022. However, most people have not enjoyed the fruits of this economic growth, as a 104 Job Bank survey found that real wage growth was nearly zero in 2022 due to inflation. The universal cash payment is a way for everyone to have a small share in Taiwan’s economic success.
“With the rise of the pandemic over the last few years, Taiwan has experienced rapid changes in its economy and society,” Su said. “We have experienced directly why Taiwan needs a resilient social welfare system to protect each person’s economic security.”
Since the payment is equal to all taxpayers, it will have a progressive effect with a greater proportion of the refund going to low-income earners. There is some expectation that the cash payment could help stimulate the economy because low-income households are more likely to use the money to satisfy their essentials, such as food and housing, freeing up some additional discretionary money for recreational uses as well. A greater willingness to spend by average families could help smaller businesses that may have struggled since the pandemic.
Both political parties have agreed on the general outline of the proposal and the cash could be sent out as soon as February. A surprise has been that the plan appears to be a universal rebate of the revenue instead of a targeted one, which will make it easier for everyone to apply and reduce administrative costs and time. One area still under consideration is whether foreign taxpayers will receive any of the money.
Previous cash assistance schemes during the pandemic were targeted and a stimulus voucher was sent universally. The pandemic vouchers were limited in how they could be spent and had an expiration date, similar to the vouchers under former President Ma Ying-Jeou.
Members of the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) argued during the pandemic that cash should have been sent out instead of vouchers. At the time, the TPP held a news conference with UBI Taiwan to discuss the benefits of cash over vouchers. Many also complained that the targeted cash programs were difficult to receive because of the strict conditions.
Research by the World Bank later demonstrated that the simplicity of universal and unconditional cash payments during the pandemic increased access to the assistance and likely provided economic stimulus. Previous research showed a multiplier effect up to $2.6 for every dollar sent. Fears of saving the cash were largely overblown. For example, in over a dozen economies primarily in East Asia, 40 percent of the universal cash transfers during the pandemic were directly used for consumption.
Besides improved standard of living, research on basic income consistently shows improved mental health and trust in society. A meta-analysis of basic income policies looked at eight governmental reports as well as seven peer reviewed studies. They found there was justification that the alleviation of stress from financial instability could be a reason for improved mental health from basic income.
There have been criticisms of the current cash payment plan, including concerns about inflation. However, it is important to remember that this is surplus tax revenue that has already been collected and is not new money created by the central bank. An effect on inflation is just as likely if the government directly spends the money or if it is sent back to taxpayers.
Additionally, while it is true that Taiwan’s insurance systems require further reforms for sustainability, the vast majority of the surplus revenue is being used to shore up these systems and provide an emergency fund. A one time injection of funds is helpful but will not save these systems in the long run.
Previously, basic income advocates from UBI Taiwan have suggested that Taiwan could establish a sovereign wealth fund (SWF). Such a fund would act as a guarantee that Taiwanese could enjoy more equity in the growth of Taiwan’s economy even if wages remain stagnant. Excess revenue could be placed in the SWF and invested in the economy, with dividends from the SWF distributed back to the people each year, similar to the system in the US state of Alaska. The Alaska Permanent Fund sends out a yearly payment from the oil revenue generated in the state. In 2022, the universal payout reached a record high of $3,284 USD.
“I applaud the government’s decision to send the universal cash transfer and hope this establishes the precedent for Taiwan to consider making this a permanent policy,” Su said.
Prochazka furthered that by making this payment equal to all citizens, the government is taking the “first small step” towards ensuring that the benefits of economic growth are shared by all.
After over a year of avoiding significant local COVID outbreaks, Taiwan experienced a scare in May with hundreds of cases emerging. This brought the idea of universal cash payments to the forefront of Taiwan’s political debate as millions of jobs were destabilized overnight.
With this backdrop, UBI Taiwan held its first-ever online basic income summit on August 15, inviting professors, activists, and politicians from around the world to discuss the state of basic income during the COVID pandemic.
Korea’s Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung opened the summit by noting the importance of the basic income movement in Korea and Taiwan. Lee is currently a frontrunner in the early stages of Korea’s presidential race. He has been called the “Bernie Sanders of Korea” because of his economic proposals.
“When the world is implementing expansive fiscal policy, basic income is gaining attention as the most rational and remarkable way to prepare for the era of the fourth industrial revolution,” Lee said in his address to the conference.
As the former mayor of Seongnam, Lee started a youth basic income program for all 24-year-old youth in the city to receive local currency every quarter. The scheme was shown to improve small business activity in the region. He later expanded the program to the province when he became governor.
Kim Kyeong Soo is part of the Gyeonggi provincial government vision planner. He is the planner of the provincial youth basic income program.
“What we are doing at our expense is to realize the basic social rights of young people,” Kim said in an interview for the conference.
This was a useful model during the COVID crisis because the provincial government was able to quickly expand the program to include all residents of the province during the economic downturn.
Kim also discussed how they increased a myriad of programs during the COVID pandemic and the plans to push for basic income on a nationwide scale.
“We designed it so that it could only be used in stores with annual sales of 1.2 billion won or less, so that the money could be actually revitalized for the small business owners of the real alley economy,” Kim said.
Members of the Basic Income Korea Network Mok Hwakyun and Kim Jae-seop attended the summit for the question-and-answer session. They noted how basic income has become a mainstream topic in Korea.
“The biggest change is that everyone knows about basic income now,” Mok said. “I hope Korea will be the first country” to implement UBI.
Prominent US activist Scott Santens gave a pre-recorded interview for the conference where he discussed the success and failures of America’s massive COVID relief program. One of the biggest changes that has emerged is the Child Tax Credit, which Santens said he believes will get more people on board with a wider basic income safety net.
“I feel hopeful that especially the monthly CTC is going to really change things here and help build momentum for a full UBI here in the US,” Santens said.
Taiwan’s Yangming University Professor Song-Lih Huang discussed the debate between Universal Basic Services compared to basic income. He concluded that UBS does not provide the same level of individual freedom as UBI.
UBI Taiwan Chairman Tyler Prochazka evaluated Taiwan’s COVID relief response and noted the inadequacy and complexity of receiving relief.
The situation became more severe this past May when a local outbreak caused Taiwan to go into level 3 lockdown for the first time during the pandemic. Taiwan is experiencing a bizarre contradiction, where record economic growth is fueled by its strong export sector despite the lockdown for other industries. At the same time, the lockdown has caused Taiwan’s employees to experience their worst economic situation in decades, particularly for the service industry.
As a result of the lockdown, half of Taiwanese experienced wage reductions of 10 to 50 percent, and 74 percent reported some reduction in wages. At the same time, 41 percent said they believed the government’s COVID relief program provided no help. One issue with the relief program is it relies on extensive documentation to prove an individual’s circumstance and can also reject an applicant if a household member has too much money in the bank.
For example, Taiwan’s unemployment had reached 570,000 people and the number experiencing lower than normal working hours had reached nearly one million during the lockdown. However, only 20,000 people were added to unemployment benefits during June which is less than one-fourth of the increased unemployment for that period.
Level two lockdown has been extended until September 6 in Taiwan, which places varying levels of restrictions on how businesses operate and closes some businesses entirely, such as certain entertainment venues. Even as much of the country returns to normal, many businesses will likely experience continued restrictions on their operations as well as reduced demand for the foreseeable future.
Despite one of the worst employment situations in decades for Taiwan, the government has only allocated around 6 percent of its annual GDP on COVID relief this year. Compared to Japan and the United States, which spent between 16 to 30 percent of their GDPs on COVID relief, Taiwan has given significantly less to its citizens as a developed economy.
Taiwan’s ruling party Democratic Progressive Party is moving toward another round of stimulus coupons worth 5,000 NT ($180 USD). Due to the stringent conditions associated with COVID relief programs, the universal coupons are the most accessible program from the government’s COVID response for many families. There has been a strong push by opposition parties in Taiwan to provide cash relief now for most Taiwanese instead of coupons and use the administrative savings to give an additional cash boost to poor households.
“Taiwan’s ruling party said they want to ‘share economic growth’ with all Taiwanese,” Prochazka said. “The real way to share economic growth is with Universal Basic Income.”
A new film is hoping to answer the question of whether life itself should be subsidized. Directors Sean Blacknell and Wayne Walsh have produced a new documentary “The Cost of Living” which discusses the mental and physical burden placed on those with unstable incomes and whether basic income is the right remedy.
The film interviews many prominent basic income scholars, such as Guy Standing and Barb Jacobson. It is focused on the issues specifically facing the United Kingdom, where there are “3.5 million people in ‘in-work poverty.’” With the arrival of COVID-19, the film-makers argue the discussion about basic income is even more pertinent than ever.
The filmmakers expressed that many of the current programs in the UK are failing to rise to the moment with extreme distress around the country, such as the universal credit which they called “dehumanizing.”
“You have to prove you are deserving,” Blacknell said.
Steve Botrill, the deputy chief executive of Urban Outreach Bolton, is interviewed in the documentary. He said that much of the current stress on the poor in the UK is due to reductions in benefits and more stringent conditions placed on social services.
As a result, Botrill said that this is a cause for the “astronomical” growth of food banks in the UK in recent years.
In the documentary, it is argued that much of a person’s wealth is dependent on luck, such as where a person is born.
Initially, the film was going to take a broad look at social programs, but narrowed to basic income as they moved forward. In the long-run, the filmmakers noted that this discussion around basic income will continue to be important because of the changing economic and technology trends around the world.
However, the filmmakers emphasized that after interviewing many scholars they do not believe basic income is a “panacea” on its own. By interviewing a wide range of viewpoints, they hoped to create a “more nuanced take” on basic income.
With new spikes of COVID-19 around the world, Wayne and Blacknell hope the film can reach a wider audience to facilitate this debate. It is now available on Amazon Prime for streaming.