The wave of basic income experiments in the last two years was a positive development in giving Universal Basic Income (UBI) some level of attention and political legitimacy in Western countries.
It is time to recognize the experimental wave is coming to an end.
Basic income activists in the next wave of UBI political discussions should push for policy changes in the direction of basic income. There are ongoing and completed trials testing cash transfers in countries with different stages of economic development. It makes more sense to build a foundation for policy changes as these results trickle out over the next few years rather than pushing for yet another experiment.
In Canada, the push for experiments backfired because a Conservative government canceled it before any results could be collected. I supported Ontario’s experiment and there was value in the research.
However, Ontario’s cancellation demonstrated that as activists move forward, we must recognize that experiments do not create a political constituency. In Alaska, the partial basic income policy has broad and significant support because everyone has benefited from it. Building a constituency that can be expanded and deepened is where activist energy should be placed in the next stage.
UNICEF funded experiments in India helped make basic income a real political discussion there, and now basic income inspired policies are being proposed by both of the main parties and a minimum income is set to be implemented in the state of Sikkim.
Experiments in developing countries and regions where basic income is still not well known may still be politically necessary. In Western countries, though, activist energy on more experiments rather than policy action seems ill-placed since UBI has already entered mainstream discussion in the West.
Experiments have already shown us cash transfers make people happier, healthier, and free them to pursue what they are interested in. The myths about basic income have been consistently undermined, particularly the idea that it would decrease work in any meaningful way. More experiments will keep telling us that giving people cash is generally good in most of the ways we measure positive outcomes.
How many times do we need an experiment to tell us cash transfers do not make people “lazy”?
Those who will not be convinced by the existing and upcoming experimental results will not be convinced by yet another experiment. The reaction to Finland’s experiment is evidence that unpersuadable opponents will latch onto even neutral effects on employment to prove basic income is a “failure.”
To truly put UBI to the test in America and Europe, actual policies that incorporate significant elements of basic income should be pushed. Cory Booker’s baby bonds is a start. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit that incorporates students and caregivers would instantly help millions. Political campaigns such as Andrew Yang’s are also important to bring the debate to a mainstream audience.
That is not to say pilot programs with the intent of expansion are not helpful. These provide valuable information to governments on how to implement basic income. Pilot programs with the primary intent of yet more research on “laziness” are the issue.
However, as the experimental wave of basic income begins to sunset, activists must look toward the next wave, which should focus on concrete policy steps that realize the spirit of basic income.
For these reasons, I see more experiments as an inefficient use of activist energy in the West. Worse, pushing experiments focused on gathering more data trades off with more useful discussions of how to bring elements of UBI to reality in the near-term.
The following is an open letter to the Ontario government from basic income advocate Rob Rainer. The Ontario government recently cancelled their basic income pilot program. Rainer is calling on the government to reconsider the cancellation.
Dear Premier Ford, Minister MacLeod, and my MPP, Mr. Hillier:
I am a resident of Ontario and a concerned citizen who is among the many who, in recent years, have been advocating for basic income as a vital form of economic and social security, and human dignity – not only for those in or on the cusp of poverty, but for the broad “middle class” within which millions of people are profoundly economically insecure. I respectfully ask that you reconsider the Ontario government’s decision to terminate the Ontario basic income pilot project. Further, I ask that you commit to seeing this project through to its intended completion and evaluation.
The Ontario pilot is a world-leading test of how basic income can transform lives for the better. The eyes of the world have been on Ontario because of it – and remain on Ontario now in the wake of the government’s decision. Sadly, yesterday’s announcement by Minister MacLeod that the government will terminate the project appears to have been made with little regard for not only the evidence in favour of basic income but also the evidence already emerging from the pilot itself – including how in just a short period of time basic income has begun to transform many lives for the better (see also this story). The announcement is especially galling given that, in April, it appeared that your Party was prepared to see the project through if you were to form the next government. As an unidentified Party spokesperson said then, “we look forward to seeing the results.”
And so, several questions for you:
Mr. Ford or Ms. MacLeod: On what evidence or information was the decision made to end the pilot? Who was consulted beforehand? Notably, did the government speak directly with any of the 4000 pilot participants spread across Hamilton, Brant County, Lindsay, and Thunder Bay, and/or any of the members of the pilot research team? If it did not take those steps, I recommend they be done ASAP if there is yet possibility to revisit the government’s decision. I believe that were your government to hear directly from pilot participants, in particular, that its views on the pilot might be much more informed.
Mr. Ford or Ms. MacLeod: Assuming this decision stands, what will be done to make the transition as painless as possible for the pilot participants – some of whom have already made critical decisions for their lives on the basis of having access over three years to the basic income? Specifically, will the government continue to issue monthly basic income payments for most if not all of the remaining intended duration of the pilot?
Mr. Ford or Ms. MacLeod: What are your ideas as to what might be more effective than basic income to providing a solid floor of economic security for Ontarians (with major health and other benefits in return)?
Mr. Hillier: I met with you in February 2017 at your constituency office in Perth. At that time you expressed general support for the idea of basic income and, I recall, at least conditional support for the basic income pilot. You may feel obliged to support the government’s decision here, but I nonetheless ask: Are you comfortable with the decision, or would you be willing to champion that the government reconsider?
It is not a stretch to say that lives may well depend on a turnaround here. I understand from colleagues close to the ground of the pilot that if the government follows through with its intentions, that one or more suicides may well follow – reflective of the economic desperation many people in Ontario suffer. In this light, I encourage you to read at least some of the ~500 short testimonials contained in the attached document, in which people from across Ontario and many other parts of Canada explain the difference basic income could mean for them and/or their loved ones (and note how some of the writers mention suicide in the context of their desperation). For further and very good introductory information about basic income, I also recommend to you Basic Income Canada Network’s Basic Income primer series.
Basic Income Advocate
Tay Valley Township, Lanark County
Written by: Jonathan Brun
For many years basic income advocates have lobbied for pilot projects to demonstrate the power of giving money to all citizens. Advocates all seem to use the short-lived Dauphin, Manitoba project in the 1970s as an argument for further pilot projects. This lobbying by advocates of Basic Income led to two pilot projects – one in Finland and one in Ontario, Canada. Finland’s program will end as originally scheduled this year and will not be extended. The pilot program in Ontario was canceled before any data could be gathered. This marks a significant setback for the Basic Income movement around the world.
The purpose of these pilot projects was to gather meaningful scientific data on the effects of basic income and use that to convince the public, bureaucrats, and politicians that basic income was a feasible and logical idea. However, scientific reasoning rarely works in the public sphere. Instead, basic income projects are at risk of ending prematurely. The reason Ontario’s experiment was canceled and Finland’s pilot program was not extended was not due to financial or scientific concerns, but rather because of politics. Therein lies the problem, if basic income projects are launched by politicians, they will be shut down by political situations.
Both of these pilot projects made a fundamental mistake – they targeted poor people. The projects were designed to show the benefits of a basic income over the traditional welfare system. They were not designed to show the benefits of a basic income for a wider part of society such as students, taxpayers or elderly people. By restricting the projects to people on or near welfare levels, the projects positioned themselves as yet another welfare program for the poor. As in most countries, the hard working, tax paying middle class has limited patience for welfare recipients. This is partially due to both constricting disposable income and human nature. We have seen country after country downsize their social welfare programs in an attempt to balance budgets, gain votes or free up cash for other programs such as tax cuts. Almost no country in the past thirty years has increased the size of their welfare programs. This should be a (big) hint to basic income advocates.
It is actually quite simple, most taxpayers have limited patience for people who do not work (for money). To think otherwise is simply idealistic and not aligned with the average (voting) population. At a recent discussion on the basic income debate in Montréal, Québec, I asked the famed basic income expert Evelyn Forget how she thinks we should pay for a basic income. Her response was that we should raise taxes on corporations and on people. When I replied this seemed challenging in the current political and economic situation, she responded that it was the best way to do it and people would just have to “deal” with higher taxes.
I strongly believe that the way you finance a basic income is the defining feature of a basic income. If you finance it through taxes, it will be viewed as another social welfare program not terribly different from numerous existing programs. This is a major problem. The entire idea of basic income is that it is different from other programs. If you finance it in the same way, through tax and redistribution, you are undermining the argument that makes basic income so appealing. Basic income is supposed to break the mold, join the left and right, simplify bureaucracy and give more freedom for individuals to build up their lives. If you fund it through taxes on workers, it will be viewed (rightfully so) as a transfer from workers to non-workers.
As an analogy to basic income advocacy, we can look at advocates for affordable housing. Both groups of advocates believe that what they are proposing is a basic right and should be made readily available. In the first case, basic income advocates argue that all members of a developed nation should have a minimum level of income that assures the essentials in life. Affordable housing advocates lobby that housing is a right, not a privilege, and it should be affordable for all members of society. I agree with both, but the way you go about implementing either is fundamental to the perception of the project by the general public.
For example, affordable housing levels in most western countries has decreased as an overall percentage of the housing market. This is due to affordable housing advocates taking the same approach as many basic income advocates – namely that affordable housing is there to alleviate the stress of expensive housing and that the affordable housing should mostly benefit the less fortunate. By casting their lot in with the poor, they are severely limiting the base of their political support.
Contrast that with Vienna, Austria. In Vienna, about 50 percent of the housing stock is owned, managed and maintained by the City. Basically, 50 percent of the housing stock is a public good, not a private good. Rents are remarkably affordable for a world class city and this brings dynamism and diversity to all the neighbourhoods. However, the main reason this was possible was because both the middle class and lower economic classes have a vested interest in the success of this public housing. This much larger political base assures that affordable housing projects continue. Basic income needs to take the same approach and stop advocating for basic income pilot projects as welfare replacements or as a poverty alleviation tool. It may indeed be that, but that is not the best way to advocate for basic income.
Contrast the controversy around pilot programs with the Alaskan Dividend Fund, which was instituted in 1976. The fund remains tremendously popular and has little risk of disappearing. Why? Because everyone gets it! No pilot project was done prior to the institution of the Alaskan dividend fund and no negative effects have emerged post-implementation. If there is one path forward for basic income, it is through the implementation of a lower level of basic income, but that goes to everyone – especially hard-working taxpayers who vote.
Basic income should think strategically about how they plan to convince the average person to vote for a basic income. It may take a distinct political party (for another post) or a clear advocate of basic income such as Andrew Yang in the United States, who has placed basic income at the center of his presidential campaign. No matter how you look at it, trying to get basic income to become a reality through the path of replacing or supplementing welfare payments is a doomed idea that will never work. Get the middle class on your side and basic income advocates can win this political battle.
Jonathan Brun, Cofounder Revenu de base Québec.
Slight edits by Tyler Prochazka.
Originally posted here: Basic Income Pilot Projects Won’t Work
We know that basic income has risen dramatically in the public consciousness and also up the political agenda in the last two to three years. How has this been achieved? The academic literature offers theoretical explanations but no empirical evidence from any of the existing pilot projects. Therefore, I carried out research in four of the locations undertaking pilot studies, Finland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Ontario, to understand how basic income was legitimised as a policy, what problems they hope to address, and how the interpretation and implementation of basic income varies between them.
Through interviews with policymakers, experts and advocates involved in these pilots and in the promotion of basic income in these countries, I discovered a great deal of similarity in the factors which have allowed basic income onto policy agendas. Some have occurred by accident, some through long-term advocacy and political lobbying, and some through economic change. Importantly, these factors occurred at similar points in time, enabling them to interact and strengthen each other.
In all four of the pilot locations interviewees described how long-term support and advocacy for basic income has allowed public and political opinion about the idea to develop over time. Alongside this, long-standing problems such as unemployment and poverty have proved extremely difficult to address, and dissatisfaction with existing policies has grown. Interviewees explained how anxieties about the changing nature of work and the inability of social security systems to properly adapt to this new world have led increasing numbers of people to look to basic income as a radical alternative. Existing systems are seen as delivering poor outcomes, stigmatising those in poverty and being overly complex and bureaucratic. The assessment of basic income as a holistic and intersectional policy, capable of delivering multiple outcomes, was cited by several interviewees as reinforcing the desire to implement a pilot. Each pilot study aims for a range of positive impacts, both economic and social, pragmatic and ethical.
Interviewees in all four of the pilot locations reported high levels of public debate and engagement with the idea of basic income, and this appears to have been crucial in legitimising it as an idea . Public interest reached a critical mass, which, coupled with other factors, prompted political action. These pilot studies have not been developed solely by civil servants in a bureaucratic bubble but have been strongly influenced by campaigners, basic income advocates and experts from think tanks and academia. Evidence from the interviews shows that formal and informal coalitions and collaborations between these different groups has helped to shore up support and consolidate basic income as a legitimate policy.
Interviews in all of the pilot areas noted a context of growing interest in evidence-based social policy, and each pilot is framed as an experiment, not necessarily the precursor to a full roll-out of basic income. In Finland for example, both advocates and opponents of basic income supported setting up the pilot in order to evaluate if basic income can live up to its promises. The emphasis on experimentation was an important factor in enabling the Finnish pilot to take place but also meant that it does not necessarily signal deep political or social change.
It should be noted at this point that none of the pilot studies that are running (Finland, Netherlands, Ontario) are experimenting with a ‘full’ basic income: a universal, non means-tested payment with no obligations or conditions attached, paid regardless of other income.
Each study retains some element of conditionality, targeting or an earnings cap, above which the basic income payment is reduced. A clean break with existing policies and paradigms of social security has not been achieved or indeed attempted for the most part. Interviewees discussed political, bureaucratic, and experimental pressures that led to compromises in the scope and ambition of their pilots. These compromises appear to have been critical in allowing the pilots to take place, as they resulted in proposals that were deemed to be politically and experimentally acceptable. At a detailed level, each of the pilots look very different in how they were designed, whom they target, and how they operate; local influences proved powerful in translating the core concepts of basic income into operational models.
These compromises could be considered as a de-radicalisation of basic income, and have resulted in a curious situation in which pilots are not testing a ‘full’ basic income but have retained the basic income ‘brand’. This appears to be a presentational issue; many interviewees described a desire amongst politicians to demonstrate innovation, leadership and radical thinking, and basic income was seen as a way to do this. Retaining the basic income ‘brand’ even though the experiments deviate in important ways from the core ethical and economic values of basic income confers a positive light on those involved and attracts international attention.
When look at their specifics, each pilot in the study is different, influenced by myriad local factors. However, each pilot demonstrates striking similarities in the clustering of a number of factors that have allowed basic income onto the political agenda. Broad agreement on the importance of tackling poverty and unemployment, and the steady rise in public interest in basic income coupled with a desire for evidence-based policy and the hope that basic income could tackle multiple problems. As a small-scale, qualitative study, these findings cannot be considered a ‘how-to’ guide for other places hoping to develop their own pilot project but may prove useful in understanding how a radical idea such as basic income can find a place in mainstream policy.
Anna Dent is a consultant working in employment and skills policy and implementation for the public and non-profit sectors. She has particular interests in low-income workers, the changing nature of work, and welfare benefits. She holds an (Master of Science) in Public Policy from the University of Bristol, and is a fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce).
Michael A. Lewis
I recently read Kate McFarland’s very informative overview of several basic income “experiments.” The quotes are around that last word in my previous sentence because, as McFarland notes, not all these projects are truly experiments, at least not if the word “experiment” is being used the way it is in the social and biomedical sciences. As we use this term in the social sciences, an experiment is a study with the following features:
- Study participants or a cluster of them are randomly assigned to at least two groups
- At least one of the groups is a treatment group, while at least one is a control group
- The treatment group receives the intervention of interest, while the control group does not receive intervention.
Feature one above is key.
What random assignment does is make it very likely that the treatment and control groups will be balanced. “Balanced” roughly means that the distribution of variables related to both the intervention and outcome of interest are the same across treatment and control groups. So if after the data are analyzed we find a difference in the outcomes between treatment and control groups, we can attribute such a difference to the intervention of interest.
The random assignment feature is why Eight’s study in Uganda, as McFarland points out, has limited “usefulness as an experiment.” I think it is fair to say in fact, that social scientists would not consider what Eight is doing an experiment at all. I am not saying that Eight’s study has no usefulness whatsoever. It may be useful when it comes to keeping BI “in the spotlight” and, thereby, help to maintain attention on this movement. For those of us who, at least in principle, like the idea of a basic income, this is a good thing. But we should be careful when it comes to considering what we can learn from the Uganda “experiment.”
The study in Uganda is usually called a pre-test/post-test study. In such studies, measures are taken before an intervention of interest (the pre-test part), after the intervention is implemented (the post-test part), and then these “before and after” measures are compared to one another. If certain changes are observed, these may be attributed to the intervention in question. The problem with such studies is that we do not know what would have happened to the group which received the intervention had it not received it. Maybe the observed changes in the relevant measures would have occurred even if there had been no intervention. The reason we want control groups in experiments is to allow researchers to estimate what would have happened to the group that received the intervention had it not received it. Without a control group, the Uganda study simply may not tell us much about the effects of the cash grants they are testing.
The third feature above has to do with the intervention of interest. This is very pertinent to the experiments McFarland wrote about, as well as BI experiments in general. Following BIEN, McFarland defines BI as “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.” As I read her piece, I thought she was interpreting this definition to mean that if a policy provides a cash payment, exactly as spelled out in the definition, but also decreases the payment if a recipient obtains an income from selling their labor, then such a policy wouldn’t be a basic income. Alaska has no income tax, but it does have the Permanent Fund Dividend. Since it gives folks the dividend but does not tax any of it back in the form of an income/earnings tax, its grant would be an example of a basic income. But if the U.S. or any other nation, granted people money unconditionally, periodically, on an individual basis, and without a means test but also taxed all sources of income, including earnings, then that country would not have a basic income. This may seem like a mere semantic point, having nothing to do with BI experiments. But I think it is incredibly relevant.
McFarland makes it clear that some places are assessing the effects of a BI as defined by BIEN. Others are testing the effects of programs similar to BI, as defined by BIEN, but with the added feature of a decrease in the BI grant if someone works. I think she refers to this as a guaranteed minimum income.
I suspect that if the U.S. ever did anything like a BI, it would be this guaranteed minimum income version. I think this is because of the vulnerability of a BI, as McFarland defines it, to what I call the “Bill Gates objection”—why give really rich people more money? If one can respond that rich people will not be net recipients because they would pay more in income taxes than they would receive in the BI, this might be a viable response to the objection.
If I am right about this, then studies like the one in Finland, which focuses on a BI, might not tell those of us in the U.S., or in other nations following a similar course, as much as we would hope. That is because the effects of a BI might differ from the effects of a guaranteed minimum income. As an example, if one could get a BI and keep all their earnings without any loss in the amount of their BI grant, such a policy could have a different effect on labor supply than one which would curtail the grant when income from earnings increased. All this means that BI supporters who get enthusiastic about findings from BI experiments ought to take a moment to see if what was studied is what they actually have in mind.
About the author:
Michael A. Lewis is a social worker and sociologist by training whose areas of interest are public policy and quantitative methods. He’s also a co-founder of USBIG and has written a number of articles, book chapters, and other pieces on the basic income, including the co-edited work The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. Lewis is on the faculties of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Graduate and University Center of the City University of New York.