The People’s Republic of China has created the largest unconditional cash transfer program in the world. It is called dibao, meaning Minimum Livelihood Guarantee. A recently published book is taking a fresh look at how effective dibao is at improving the livelihoods of impoverished Chinese people.
Dr. Qin Gao is on the faculty of the Columbia University School of Social Work, where she researches poverty, income inequality, and social welfare programs in China.
Gao has done extensive work researching dibao, and has released the book “Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China,” which evaluates how well dibao has achieved its goals of lowering the amount and intensity of poverty in China.
The UBI Podcast recently interviewed Gao on her new book about the dibao program and asked her to give her thoughts on universalizing dibao.
Dibao is important to understand for basic income researchers because it demonstrates on a large-scale how basic income operates when it is not universal (since it includes a means test).
The dibao program allows each locality to set its own dibao standard (essentially the poverty line). Anyone below that standard is technically eligible for dibao assistance. The assistance in theory gives an individual enough money to reach the dibao standard. Eligibility for dibao is based on individual income, so one individual in a household could qualify, while another may not, Gao said.
For example, a dibao standard in Beijing, China is 900 RMB per person per month. If an individual made 700 RMB per month, dibao would provide 200 RMB in assistance to reach the dibao line of 900.
While some may worry that officials will cut off dibao assistance once an individual goes over the line, Gao said the reality is more complicated.
“In reality, many local officials are very considerate of the fluctuation in people’s incomes and other family situations. For example, education needs, health care needs. So many localities actually have initiatives to not discontinue people’s dibao benefits right away if they have income that’s higher than the local dibao line,” she said.
Some localities may allow a family to stay on dibao for three months after extra income is earned to make sure they have job security and they “do not fall back into poverty right away.”
Once a family receives the cash, it is unconditional, meaning there are no (direct) behavioral conditions to continue receiving the money.
Gao said the evidence that dibao creates a poverty trap, where families remain under the poverty line intentionally to receive assistance, is not strong.
Some localities have families update their income and wealth information every three to six months. Certain villages will even publish the names of recipients to allow for public feedback on whether a family should qualify for dibao. Based on the feedback, localities will randomly select people to verify their income information.
“So it’s a very systematic and stringent process,” Gao said.
For some villages, allowing others to comment on a family’s poverty situation may further stigmatize the dibao and other forms of welfare.
“Because the dibao is an unconditional cash transfer, so by design the policy requires applicants to tell the truth and other community members and neighbors to share the responsibility of monitoring. That is part of the design of this program,” Gao said.
While on paper, the dibao is technically an “unconditional cash transfer,” the way dibao measures wealth creates its own form of conditions.
Depending on the locality, dibao recipients may face a myriad of asset tests that prevent them from owning pets, a larger than average home, a car, or luxury items. Expensive private schools and schools abroad are off-limits. In the past, even a cellphone was a disqualifier.
“I think now, many localities are more lenient on that, especially on the cell phone. But there are certain luxury goods (so-called), that you’re not supposed to have. That also features into the feedback from the neighbors and community members. They would get critical and jealous if you have certain luxury goods that they don’t have but you are getting dibao,” Gao said.
In Gao’s book, she also analyzes the subjective well-being and social participation of dibao recipients. She found dibao recipients “tend to be more isolated, and less active in their social participation” than similar peers.
Dibao recipients may feel stigmatized from participating in these activities, such as going to the movies, since it is not a “culturally acceptable use of the dibao income,” she said.
After China’s transition from a planned economy to a market-based economy, society’s expectations about how families earn their own living changed. Now it is expected that people “earn a living through their own work.” Although, Gao said China is currently going through a debate about who “deserves” welfare.
“Previously people had guaranteed jobs, but many people during the economic transformation were laid off so able-bodied adults couldn’t support themselves through jobs anymore. And that group is making up about half of the dibao population,” Gao said.
One area of concern for policymakers is ensuring the dibao is reaching the “proper recipients;” that is people in poverty. There are reports of targeting errors in administering dibao “because of misreporting or difficulty to capture the real income or assets situation in rural areas.”
“The targeting error is real and local officials are very aware of it, but that will stay with the program because of the variations of family conditions and income,” Gao said.
The dibao standard is often used as a criteria for other welfare as well. This means that qualifying for dibao also gives a family access to a host of other assistance (including education, housing, and medical assistance). However, this could create a “welfare cliff” issue, where if a family exceeds the standard they may lose a lot more assistance than they gain as income.
“I think this is one of the policy design features of dibao that needs to be revised right now,” Gao said of dibao acting as a “gatekeeper” for other social assistance.
Overall, dibao has only reduced the rate of poverty to a “modest degree.” It is more effective at reducing the depth and severity of poverty, Gao said.
When asked about the potential to universalize dibao and remove the means-test, effectively creating a Universal Basic Income for China, Gao said this idea has been “very much on my mind recently.”
“I think the best possibility probably would be for certain more developed localities to experiment with such a program and see how it works,” she said.
As for creating a UBI program in China in the near-term, Gao said this would be challenging for many reasons.
“To make the dibao or a similar cash transfer universal all around China, I don’t think it’s very likely in the short-term, both in terms of fiscal challenges and also political and cultural challenges,” Gao said.
Hong Kong’s newspaper of record, South China Morning Post, recently covered the surge of interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the Asia Pacific.
The author, David Green, points out the positive data that has been demonstrated thus far from cash-grant experiments, such as in India.
South Korea has had interest in basic income since the “youth dividend” was implemented in Seongnam city. BIEN held its Congress in South Korea last year.
The article notes that Taiwan is seeing increased interest in the idea of basic income since the first Asia Pacific focused Basic Income conference was held in Taipei.
The headline references China’s dibao program, which is a cash-grant minimum income guarantee. The dibao has many differences to UBI as conceived by Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). Primarily, dibao is not a universal cash-grant (dibao is means-tested and only given to those that are under the dibao poverty line).
Due to dibao’s means-tests, the article notes there are an array of issues with China’s minimum income guarantee, primarily that it does not reach the poor.
Tyler Prochazka, features editor of BI News, was quoted as advocating for China to create “special economic zones” to test a UBI.
Europe has received a lot of attention for its recent moves toward experimenting with a basic income policy. What has been lost in this focus are the developments that are taking place in the rest of the globe, including the world’s second biggest economy: China.
Cheng Furui is one of the organizers of the China Social Dividend/Basic Income Network, and has done extensive research on China’s social safety net. In the interview below, she said a basic income would resolve many of the problems facing China’s current welfare program.
As the international economy faces increasing automization, Cheng said basic income is a potent answer to this issue in China.
“I believe that basic income and China’s status quo are aligned because it is in accordance with the essence of both socialism and the market economy,” she said.
The full length interview is below:
What is different between Universal Basic Income and China’s Minimum Livelihood Guarantee (Dibao)？
Dibao is China’s Minimum Livelihood Guarantee program. Anyone with an income below the minimum can receive a supplementary income up to the standard. In this way, Dibao is unconditional: no one can take away someone’s right to the Dibao income. The Dibao only provides a grant to those that are below the Dibao income standard. Thus, the government must conduct strict evaluations of recipients’ economic situations, which creates a lot of implementation problems and issues of abuse. By contrast, Universal Basic Income provides the grant to every person, regardless of income. Moreover, China’s Dibao benefit has a large discrepancy across different regions, consistent with the regional economic inequality that China already faces. Here is more information for reference: China’s MCA.
How do the Chinese view basic income? Do the Chinese generally understand about this policy?
Most Chinese don’t know about the basic income concept. Nonetheless, there are some places that are currently carrying out this policy, although they do not call it basic income. The areas that are implementing basic income all have different situations. The differences are not just regional, even neighboring areas have large differences depending on the community members’ organizational depth and shape.
Why should China implement basic income? What type of impact would it have?
The foundation for China’s implementation of basic income comes from China’s public ownership system itself. State owned enterprises, urban land, and mineral resources already exist, much like Alaska in the United States. Every person should have a share of public resources. This relies on the profit from the public resources being utilized as a basic income revenue, not only does everyone receive equal payment. This means the government does not have to collect more taxes from the rich only to give back to every person.
Chinese history applies the profit from publicly owned resources to supplement the country’s public finances, therefore lowering the private sector’s tax rate. In turn, conducting large scale investment in service sector and infrastructure development, including constructing railroads, and the systems that support the economy such as education and healthcare. These systems provide benefits to the vast majority of people. During China’s period of urbanization and gradual improvement of infrastructure and even completion of these projects, the profit of public resources perhaps can be used as a benefit to each person. Certainly, this will lower society’s overall wage rate or working hours. Simultaneously, some places have collective ownership of resources, and most of Chinese social dividends come from these resources.
What is the status of China’s basic income movement?
The basic income concept is currently only being discussed among Chinese academics and there are currently few researchers of the policy. However, the general public is already exploring implementation of basic income, also it is genuinely that every person in those areas can enjoy the local basic income. For example, much of the revenue for basic income programs is contributed by the collective organizations’ dividend bonus.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, rural China has implemented collectivization of land, the household farm quota system allows the individual to use the land for production, but they cannot sell the land to others. During the movement toward urbanization, one part of the land was acquired by the government. Some of these collective resources that were taken were compensated with urban-based resources, in turn producing new benefits. From there, it produced social dividends within these communities. Looking at the entire country, this was not a rare case.
In BIEN News, I recently introduced these types of cases. China is putting into effect the policy of ‘separation of three land rights’ (ownership, contracting right, and operating right), which will promote the land right equity investment Recently, our main work has focused on excavating the essence of these cases, evaluating the likelihood of wide-spread promotion of this policy. Under the recent pessimistic economic environment, we want to offer a feasible path forward.
Does basic income suit China currently? Does it fit with Chinese culture?
I believe that basic income and China’s status quo are aligned because it is in accordance with the essence of both socialism and the market economy. However, Chinese culture encourages labor and looks down upon laziness. With the development of automatization, machines will continue to replace human labor. As a result, Chinese people will start to rethink this issue. If a basic income is put in place, after it is implemented it is feasible that the entire country will uniformly cut down on the weekly work schedule. Previously China had a six-day work week, and now it has been cut down to five days. In the future, it is possible it can be reduced to a four-day work week.
Additionally, China’s various regions have had drastically different levels of development, and the cost of living differences are also quite large. The social security system has not yet achieved nationally uniform administration. Public resources and financial data also need to be gradually made more transparent. This lack of transparency has impeded the ability to evaluate the potential impact of basic income.
About the interviewee:
Cheng Furui is doing her Post-doctoral program in Chinese Academy of Social
Science. She got her PhD in Tsinghua University. Her research interest is social
policy. “Social Assistance and Poverty Alleviation Divergence: A Capability
Approach” is her $rst published book based on her doctoral dissertation,
which explores Chinese social safety net in details. She is a voluntary news
editor of BIEN now. She is also one of organizers of China Social
Back in the 1990s, China started experimenting with a minimum income guarantee that topped off incomes to a minimum level set by local governments. China called the program dibao, meaning minimum livelihood guarantee, expanding the program nationwide in 2007.
In Beijing the urban monthly dibao standard is 1050 RMB ($161.50 USD) and the rural standard is 800 RMB ($123.04 USD). For urban residents, this is about five dollars USD a day.
However, even this paltry amount often does not make it to those in poverty.
A report by the World Bank found that for every 10 RMB spent on the dibao, only 1 to 2.4 RMB reached individuals in poverty (cited by the Economist). The World Bank also found the dibao program only lowered the poverty gap by 6.5 percent.
Corruption and inability to determine households’ poverty status have plagued the program. According to Lu Yang in the Indian Journal of Labour Economics, based on 2010 survey data only 21 percent of poor households were able to receive the dibao, while more than half of dibao recipients were above the poverty line.
Many local governments go to great lengths to investigate whether dibao households are secretly hoarding wealth, visiting recipients’ homes and observing whether the household has too many “high quality” products to qualify.
Others are concerned with the dibao’s effect on the poor’s effective marginal tax rate. Higher effective marginal tax rates lower the likelihood that a household member will seek work.
If a household’s average income per person goes above the dibao standard, they could sacrifice the entirety of the benefit. Each household member raises the household’s dibao standard by 100 percent. For example, in Beijing where the standard is 1050 RMB per month, a two-person household would face a 2100 RMB dibao standard. In turn, larger households are more susceptible to the problem of high effective marginal tax rates.
In some instances, it is possible that a household will have a 100 percent effective tax rate due to the dibao benefit. In these cases, the household will have the same income regardless of whether a household member chooses to work or not. Based on data from an essay in Population and Development a family of three in Tianjin with one household member employed would have the same income as an identical family that does not work at all. Clearly this has the potential to undermine labor participation if the drop off is this steep in reality.
China plans to lift 70 million people out of poverty by 2020. Such a massive undertaking requires a robust social welfare system. As it stands, the dibao program is not equipped to do this heavy lifting.
However, the dibao does provide a starting point for China to experiment with universal coverage.
The 2014 World Bank report conducted economic simulations that demonstrated expanding dibao coverage was more effective than increasing the benefit size at lowering the poverty gap.
Like the dibao, the central government of China could initiate pilot programs that universalize the dibao cash transfer, eliminating the income and wealth requirements to qualify for the dibao benefit.
Universalizing the program would potentially address many of the issues plaguing dibao, such as the high effective marginal tax rates and low rate of impoverished individuals that receive the dibao.
China’s economic miracle successfully lifted the most individuals out of poverty in world history. To do so, China undertook some dramatic reforms that completely reshaped Chinese society. Now in order to completely eradicate poverty, China may want to take yet another drastic step with a universal basic income guarantee.
BIEN’s 2022 Congress will be held in Brisbane, Australia, from Monday 26th to Wednesday 28th September 2022. This will be a hybrid face to face and online event. The main face-to-face event will take place in Brisbane.
Call for papers: Abstracts (250—300 words) due by Friday 4 February 2022; please click here for more information.
A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Read more