What if everyone received monthly payments to make life easier and encourage greater economic activity? That’s the exact premise behind Universal Basic Income (UBI).
The idea of UBI as a means to both combat poverty and improve economic prospects has been around for decades. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on economies worldwide, momentum behind the idea has seen a resurgence among certain groups.
Of course, the money to fund basic income programs has to come from somewhere. UBI relies heavily on government budgets or direct funding to cover the regular payments.
As policymakers examine this trade-off between government spending and the potential benefits, there is a growing pool of data to draw inferences from. In fact, basic income has been piloted and experimented on all around the world—but with a mixed bag of results.
What Makes Basic Income Universal?
UBI operates by giving people the means to meet basic necessities with a regular stipend. In theory, this leaves them free to spend their money and resources on economic goods, or searching for better employment options.
Before examining the programs, it’s important to make a distinction between basic income and universal basic income.
With these parameters in mind, and thanks to data from the Stanford Basic Income Lab, we’ve mapped 48 basic income programs that demonstrate multiple features of UBI and are regularly cited in basic income policy.
Some mapped programs are past experiments used to evaluate basic income. Others are ongoing or new pilots, including recently launched programs in Germany and Spain.
Recently, Canada joined the list as countries considering UBI as a top policy priority in a post-COVID world. But as past experiments show, ideas around basic income can be implemented in many different ways.
Basic Income Programs Took Many Forms
Basic income pilots have seen many iterations across the globe. Many paid out in U.S. dollars, while others chose to stick with local currencies (marked by an asterisk for estimated USD value).
Many of the programs meet the classical requirements of UBI. Of the 48 basic income programs tallied above, 75% paid out monthly, and 60% were paid out to individuals.
However, for various reasons, not all of these programs follow UBI requirements. For example, 38% of the basic income programs were paid out to households instead of individuals, and many programs have paid out in lump sums or over varying time frames.
Interestingly, the need for better understanding of basic income has resulted in many divergences between programs. Some programs were only targeted at specific groups like South Korea’s Basic Income for Farmers program, while others like the Baby’s First Years program in the U.S. have been experimenting with different dollar amounts in order to evaluate efficiency.
Other experiments based payments made off of the total income of recipients. For example, in the U.S., the Rural Income and New Jersey Income Maintenance Experiments paid out using a negative income tax (return) on earnings, while recipients of Canada’s Ontario Basic Income Pilot received fixed amounts minus 50% of their earned income.
Varying Programs with Varied Results
So is basic income the real deal or a pipe dream? The results are still unclear.
Some, like the initial pilots for Uganda’s Eight program, were found to result in significant multipliers on economic activity and well-being. Other programs, however, returned mixed results that made further experimentation difficult. Finland’s highly-touted pilot program decreased stress levels of recipients across the board, but didn’t positively impact work activity.
The biggest difficulty has been in keeping programs going and securing funding. Ontario’s three-year projects were prematurely cancelled in 2018 before they could be completed and assessed, and the next stages of Finland’s program are in limbo.
Likewise in the U.S., start-up incubator Y Combinator has been planning a $60M basic income study program, but can’t proceed until funding is secured.
A Post-COVID Future for UBI?
In light of COVID-19, basic income has once again taken center stage.
Many countries have already implemented payment schemes or boosted unemployment benefits in reaction to the pandemic. Others like Spain have used that momentum to launch fully-fledged basic income pilots.
It’s still too early to tell if UBI will live up to expectations or if the idea will fizzle out, but as new experiments and policy programs take shape, a growing amount of data will become available for policymakers to evaluate.