On Tuesday, May 9, an article published in The Independent alleged that Finland’s Basic Income Experiment has already produced evidence that unconditional payments lower stress and improve mental health for unemployed Finns.
This widely shared article generated rumors that the Finnish government has released the first results of this two-year pilot study, which commenced on January 1, including the above findings. These rumors are inaccurate, and the present post aims to address this misconstrual.
Background on Finland’s Basic Income Experiment
Directed by Kela, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, Finland’s nationwide pilot study of basic income generated widespread international interest from its announcement in 2015 to its launch at the start of 2017. In its current design, the experiment is restricted to those between ages 25 and 58 who were receiving unemployment assistance at the end of 2016. Nonetheless, it differs from several other contemporary so-called “basic income experiments” in that the experimental group–consisting of 2,000 randomly selected individuals from the above target group–receives cash payments (€560 per month) that are indeed unconditional, individual, and not means tested (compare, for example, to the experiments planned or underway in Ontario, the Netherlands, Barcelona, and Livorno, Italy).
Many basic income supporters and followers are, no doubt, eagerly anticipating the results of this experiment, which will continue through December 31, 2018. Here, though, it is important to keep in mind several caveats–especially as rumors of initial results begin to surface.
1. Kela will publish no results prior to the end of the experiment (i.e. December 31, 2018).
In a blog post published in January, in response to the widespread media attention directed at the experiment, research team leader Olli Kangas and three colleagues explain that publishing any results during the course of the experiment runs the risk of influencing participants’ behavior:
A final evaluation of the effects of the basic income can only be made after a sufficiently long period of time has elapsed for the effects to become apparent. The two-year run of the experiment is not very long for changes in behaviour to materialise. The potential of the experiment, short as it is, to provide reliable results should not be undermined by reporting its effects while it is underway.
2. Kela will conduct no questionnaires or interviews of participants while the experiment is in progress.
As the same blog states, the researchers will minimize their reliance on questionnaires and interviews to gain information about study participants–again to minimize the effect of observation on behavior–relying instead on data available from administrative registries. If any individual questionnaires or interviews are used, they “will not be conducted without careful consideration, and not before the experiment has ended.”
3. Analysis of the experiment will focus on labor market effects.
A major reason for the Finnish government’s interest in basic income has been the policy’s potential to improve employment incentives (in contrast to Finland’s current unemployment benefits, which are reduced by 50% of earned income if a recipient takes a part-time job and which demand much bureaucratic oversight of individuals). Correspondingly, a main objective of the experiment, as stated by Kela, is to determine “whether there are differences in employment rates between those receiving and those not receiving a basic income.”
Some basic income proponents have criticized the Finnish pilot for its lack of attention to other potential beneficial effects of basic income, such as its effects on individual health and well-being; however, Kela has no current plans to examine such effects.
“Reduced Stress” Claim
It is in this context that we must read The Independent’s recent article “Finland’s universal basic income trial for unemployed reduces stress levels, says official.”
As its data, the article quotes Kela official Marjukka Turunen (Head of Legal Affairs Unit) as saying, “There was this one woman who said: ‘I was afraid every time the phone would ring, that unemployment services are calling to offer me a job’,” and, “This experiment really has an indirect impact, also, on the stress levels [of people] and the mental health and so on.”
These quotes originate in a recent interview on WNYC’s podcast The Takeaway, in an episode on automation and the future of work, in which host John Hockenberry interviewed Turunen about Finland’s basic income experiment, having presented basic income as a possible policy response to technological unemployment. After stressing the potential of basic income to promote employment (by avoiding the welfare trap and reducing bureaucracy and paperwork), Turunen related the anecdote above in reply to a question in which Hockenberry turned about the effects of basic income on feelings of confidence and self-respect.
In comments to Basic Income News, Turunen explained that this situation involved a participant who agreed to participate in a media interview and volunteered this information to the reporter. While some participants themselves offer feedback to Kela, Kela itself is not allowed to divulge this information to the media, nor to provide any personal information about the study participants. However, this does not prevent participants themselves from volunteering to talk about the experiment to media, as in the present situation.
Thus, it is important not to mistake this unsolicited feedback from experiment participants for official and formal results–which are still more than a year and half away. As Turunen comments,
We do not have any results yet, not until the end of next year; these insights are coming from the customers themselves willing to talk about this in the media. And these are only insights, the results must be very carefully analyzed according to the information we only get at the end of next year.
In his piece “Universal Basic Income – could it work?”, Gwynne Dyer writes that current populism fails to realize the extent of automation. Promises like “bring the jobs back” and a full-employment economy ignore the extent of automation in technology. Automation of work is expected to increase over the next twenty years and the author believes this change will negatively influence democratic processes and economic structures. As such, the author believes the latter causes the right wing to think about UBI as a way to provide a potential solution to current problems in economic models. However, it is unclear how the author connects these events.
The author questions: why give funds unconditionally, from where does the money come, and would people still work? These questions are important for each political party to evaluate. In addition, the author cites pilot studies in Canada, the Netherlands, and Finland that aim to develop evidence and understanding of UBI impacts. He believes the results of studies will be useful to developing the conversation around UBI.
On January 12, 2017, the Work and Pensions Committee of the UK Parliament held an oral evidence hearing on universal basic income, the official summary of which is now available online. It ultimately concludes that the measure “risks being a distraction from workable welfare reform” and urges “the incoming government not to expend any energy on it.”
Basic Income News previously reported on the hearing here, and provided a summary of all contributions here. A video of the hearing can be viewed in its entirety here:
Universal basic income is commonly called “citizen’s income” (CI) in the UK. According to the hearing summary, CI is defined as a payment from the state to all citizens that is unconditional, non-withdrawable (i.e., not means tested), automatic, and paid to individuals rather than households. This largely aligns with BIEN’s definition of basic income.
The stated purpose of the hearing was “to understand the cases for and against CI and to reach a conclusion on whether this is an idea that merits more in-depth attention from ourselves [the Work and Pensions Committee] and the Government.”
The summary presents an explanation of why CI is attractive to many, covering factors that include: income security for all, mitigation of the negative effects of new, precarious types of work, strengthening of the bargaining position of workers, removing the work disincentives that can arise from the interaction of work and benefits, and reducing the stigma associated with claiming benefits. It is also noted that “[w]itnesses focused on the simplicity of CI schemes compared to the current welfare system.”
However, the perceived cost and political infeasibility of the CI ultimately proved more persuasive to the committee:
“The cost of introducing a CI at a level that would be beneficial for the poor would be prohibitive, as equal benefits would go to the whole population irrespective of their income. It would require rises in taxation that have not been contemplated by any political party serious about winning a general election.”
The summary goes on to note that a more modest CI scheme would lose its simplicity advantage over the existing welfare system, as it would need to be topped-up by means-tested and conditional income supports.
Researchers in several Dutch municipalities are preparing experiments to test the effects of the removal of conditions on social assistance. Although not testing basic income per se, the experiments will examine one of its key attributes (the reduction of conditionality).
This year, popular sources have occasionally continued to report that the Dutch city of Utrecht is preparing to launch–or has already launched–a pilot study of universal basic income (sometimes continuing to cite a now-outdated article published in The Atlantic in June 2016). In this light, it is particularly important to clarify the facts surrounding the Dutch social assistance experiments.
It is true that researchers have proposed experiments in several Dutch municipalities that will examine the effects of reducing conditions on welfare benefits, including the removal of job-seeking requirements and a lessening in the amount benefits are reduced with income. However, as explained below, these experiments will not test a full-fledged basic income. Moreover, at the time of this writing, none of the municipal social experiments have been launched: those in Groningen, Tilburg, and Wageningen are awaiting approval from the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs; meanwhile, the experiment in Utrecht has been delayed indefinitely, having been denied approval by the Ministry.
Background: The Participation Act, Motivation, and Design
The Dutch Participation Act, enacted in 2015, imposes conditions on recipients of social welfare that are intended to promote their reintegration into paid employment. For example, beneficiaries are typically required to complete five job applications per week, attend group meetings, and participate in training activities in order to continue receive cash assistance.
Researchers at Utrecht University School of Economics, such as Loek Groot and Timo Verlaat, have criticized the conditions and sanctions imposed by the Participation Act from standpoint of behavioral economics. Research in behavioral economics has demonstrated, for example, that performing tasks for monetary rewards can “crowd out” individuals’ intrinsic motivation to perform such tasks. Furthermore, deprivation and fear of losing benefits may engender a scarcity mindset that impedes rational decision making. Drawing from such findings, researchers like Groot and Verlaat have hypothesized that reducing conditions on welfare benefits would better promote individuals’ reintegration and productive contributions to society (see, e.g., “Utrecht University and City of Utrecht start experiment to study alternative forms of social assistance,” last accessed May 6, 2017; note that the start date mentioned in the article, May 1, is no longer accurate).
The social experiments proposed in Utrecht and other Dutch municipalities have been designed to test the above hypothesis: randomly selected welfare recipients (who agree to participate) will be randomly assigned either to a control group or a treatment group, one in which reintegration requirements on receipt of benefits will be removed. (Although the exact design of the experiments has differed between municipalities–and between versions of the proposal–all have included a treatment group with the elimination of job-seeking conditions. Proposals experiments have also included groups with different interventions, such as, in several recent versions, increased reintegration requirements and relaxation on means-testing; see below.) These treatment groups will be compared to a control group, as well as a reference group composed of individuals not selected for the experiment, with respect to outcomes such as labor market participation, debt, health, and life-satisfaction.
Meanwhile, however, researchers must grapple with another consequence of the Participation Act: the law limits the extent to which they are legally permitted to test alternative welfare policies. For one, as mentioned in a previous Basic Income News article, the Ministry of Social Affairs has required that the municipal officials overseeing the experiment must check after six and twelve months to determine whether experimental subjects have made sufficient efforts to find paid work. At these times, if an individual has been found to have undertaken too few employment-promoting activities, their participation in the experiment must be ended. This constraint reintroduces some degree of conditionality even for treatment groups in which the requirement to participate in reintegration activities has been lifted from social assistance.
In addition, the Ministry has also requested that experiments include an additional treatment group in which stricter reintegration requirements are introduced. The experiments proposed for the municipalities of Tilburg, Wageningen, and Groningen, are currently under review by the Ministry, include such a treatment group; the initial (and unapproval) design of the Utrecht experiment did not.
Relationship to Basic Income
Largely for political reasons, proponents of the Dutch social experiments have avoided the use of the term ‘basic income’ (‘basisinkomen’ in Dutch), with researchers in Utrecht calling their proposed experiment by the name ‘Weten Wat Werkt’ (English: ‘Know What Works’). (In the Netherlands, “basic income” is often associated with the stereotype of “giving free money to lazy people”.)
This avoidance is apt, however, since the experiments have indeed not been designed to test a universal and fully unconditional basic income. The designs of the experiments have either not been finalized or are still pending government approval (see below). Regardless, however, it seems certain that any of the experiments (if approved) will test policies that differ from a basic income in several key respects. First, the population of the experiment is not “universal”; participants are to be selected from current welfare recipients (as is also the case in Finland’s Basic Income Experiment, launched on January 1, 2017, which has also been designed to test the labor market effects of the removal of conditions on welfare benefits for the unemployed).
Furthermore, within the treatment conditions themselves, the benefit will remain means-tested and household-based (rather than individual-based), in both respects unlike a basic income. In all designs proposed to date, participants within all treatment groups will have their benefits reduced if they take a paid job during the course of the experiment. However, the Tilburg, Wageningen, and Groningen experiments, as currently planned, will include a treatment group in which benefits would be reduced at slower rate (50% of earned income instead of 75%).
In the latter respects, the Dutch municipal experiments bear more similarity to the Ontario Basic Income Pilot than Finland’s Basic Income Experiment . While the Finnish pilot is indeed investigating non-means-tested benefits paid to individuals, the pilot studies in Ontario and (if approved) the Netherlands will continue to work with programs in which the amount of benefits depend on income and household status; however, in all cases, many conditionalities on benefits will be removed in some experimental conditions.
Despite these differences, some view the Dutch social assistance experiments as a possible step toward a full-fledged basic income. Moreover, as seen above, the experiments have been motivated largely by arguments from behavioral economics that have previously been invoked in arguments in favor of the unconditionality of basic income (see, e.g., the 2009 Basic Income Studies article “Behavioral Economics and The Basic Income Guarantee” by Wesley J. Pech).
Status of the Experiments
In contrast to some rumors and media presentations, none of the proposed social assistance experiments in the Netherlands has yet been launched.
The experiment in Utrecht, which had earlier in the year been to declared to have a launch date of May 1, has been deferred. According to a statement about the experiment on the City of Utrecht webpage, “The Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment has indicated that we need to do the experiment in a different way. We are discussing how we can conduct the study.”
Researchers are currently considering alternative designs of the experiment that will bring them into compliance with the Participation Act, and no new start date has been announced.
Meanwhile, the Ministry is reviewing experiments proposed in Tilburg, Wageningen, and Groningen, with an announcement expected later in May. As previously mentioned, these experiments have been designed to avoid conflict with the Participation Act, as had been one concern with the originally proposed design of the Utrecht experiment.
Basic Income News will publish a follow-up article of the Dutch municipal experiments, including further details on their design and implementation, after their final approval by the government.
Thanks to Arjen Edzes, Ruud Muffels, and Timo Verlaat for information and updates, and to Florie Barnhoorn and Dave Clegg for reviewing this article.
In this video, Owen Jones, a British journalist, interviews Rutger Bregman, the author of Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There.
Bregman’s book makes the technological unemployment case for a basic income. Jones asks whether this case can stand, referring to John Maynard Keynes’ likely failed prophecy of a 15 hour work week by 2030 in his Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. Bregman says that many current jobs are unneeded.
Author Jeffery J. Smith has published a science fiction novel, Perfect Timing, which explores the potential of a universal basic income to improve the lot of humanity.
Smith has been an advocate of basic income for over 20 years, promoting a Georgist-inspired approach to a citizen’s dividend. Explaining the influence of his views on his novel, he states:
As a lifelong activist, I’ve concluded that our most fundamental and wide-reaching solution is to get an extra income to everyone from society’s surplus. Doing that would topple hierarchy and all its attendant ills, it’d liberate us from conformist labor, it’d leave very little for people to haggle over in the political arena, and — coming from “rents” — it’d automatically spur us to do more with less. We could live our lives as the human beings we were meant to be.
In his words, Perfect Timing “conveys the tone of Hitchhiker’s Guide, offers insights like Stranger in a Strange Land, and presents an upbeat alternative, unlike Brave New World.”
The book’s publisher, Rogue Phoenix, provides the following summary (with a longer excerpt available on its website):
Accidentally transported to the future, caterer Crik escapes house-arrest with Tepper, his possible distant descendant. While pursued by volunteer vigilante Voltak, goofball Crik explores Geotopia—where buildings grow, people incorporate animal powers, smart phones know it all, and vehicles defy gravity—seeking clues. If he can discover, understand, and articulate the future’s public policy that works right for everybody, he can prove he was their founder, the lone agent of change who put society on its path toward universal prosperity and harmony with nature. If he fails to convince the Futurite Authorities, they wouldn’t return their unexpected visitor to the exact second he left—something their law requires—to the moment when a hail of gunfire was bearing down on the luckless caterer and college dropout…would they?
The novel was published on April 18, 2017, and is currently available at Amazon.com.
The 2020 BIEN Congress was to be held in Brisbane in Australia from the 28th to the 30th September 2020. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the event has been cancelled. BIEN’s Executive Committee and the Scottish and Australian congress Local Organising Committees have agreed the following statement: ‘The Scottish and Australian Congress Local Organisation Committees have agreed that the current plan is to hold the 2021 BIEN congress in Scotland and the 2022 BIEN congress in Australia.’
A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Read more
A series of conversations from around the world that explore the relationship between the Covid-19 pandemic and Basic Income. Read more