Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income, an idea that was once thought dead, is gaining a lot of steam recently as several countries across the globe are gearing up for various trials to put this idea to the test. Everyone one from Canada to the Netherlands, Kenya, and even the U.S. are eager to give this unorthodox idea a try. 

UBI comes in a couple of different forms and varies per community, but the basic idea is that it provides citizens with a universal sum of money that would supplement their current wages. This income would come with no strings attached, but the thought is that it would be used to cover necessities such as food, water, clothing, and shelter. 

This idea has been fiercely debated for over a hundred years beginning with Thomas Paine who suggested citizens be payed in exchange for the privatization of land all the way up to the 70s with Canada running one of the first trials of this idea and Alaska creating the Alaska Permanent Fund. Governments lost interest in UBI in the 80s and 90s, but now it is back. 

Common criticisms of UBI include its promotion of laziness among the workforce, the high cost of integrating this idea, and poor management of the money given to various citizens. 

That being said, several studies have pointed to the fact that UBI might actually encourages the opposite in its recipients. Initial benefits include increased entrepreneurship, more time spent taking care of family, more leverage as an employee to seek out better paying jobs, and several health benefits that our linked to less financial stress. 

These studies also stressed the fact that this would only be a supplemental income that is meant to be coupled with other sources of income. The idea that poor people are lazy is an idea that is consistently pushed by people who have never been truly poor. I see this time and time again when the debate over the welfare system comes knocking. While it's not outside the realm of possibility, I personally have never met any low wage income earner, who wouldn't strive for a better life in some capacity if given the chance. Besides that, I think it's dangerous and reductive to say that poor people are poor because they mismanage their money. There are so many other extenuating circumstances that can cause someone to live poorly.  As Andy Stern puts it in an interview by the American Prospect

Elites sitting far removed may think people won’t work. But I haven’t known a home-care worker, janitor, child-care worker making that little money while working, who doesn’t need a lot more money and who wouldn’t go out and try to find other work. Clearly, a universal basic income would be a real help for people who want to stay home with their family or an elderly parent. It may mean they don’t work, but isn’t that a value to society that people should provide assistance to family members or kids? I think there are other people who would want to go study. I think it’s great that students would have assistance that pays for their textbooks or pay for their fees, even if they have a scholarship or loans.

As far as cost is concerned, this is a problem that would take some trial runs, especially in countries with larger populations, to solve, but that shouldn't be a reason to rule an idea out. Some possibilities include doing away with portions of the welfare system in exchange for this universal income, a few different types of taxes, and tweaking the amount received by any individual based on a variety of social contexts. 

Admittedly, UBI is still mostly untested but that's what these trial runs hope to figure out. The outcome has been overwhelmingly positive so far.

It's interesting to note that this month Switzerland became the first country to hold a country-wide referendum on whether or not the Swiss government should institute a Universal Basic Income for its citizens. While the measure was overwhelmingly rejected with 77% of people voting "no" against 23% voting "yes', exit polls revealed that the measure was mainly rejected based on cost to the government. I'll quote Andy again.

One of the interesting polling results that was done with the Swiss referendum is 70 percent of all voters—not just “yes” or “no” voters but all voters—think the universal basic income will occur within the next 25 years. They just thought it was premature and there was not an effective explanation about how you would finance it.

With a global economy that is increasingly moving towards automated work and freelance demand-driven labor, it's ideas like this that are absolutely necessary to the future. Andy Stern talks about the necessity for some form of UBI in his interview with American Prospect. I encourage everyone to read it. Here is a link. 

Finally, GiveDirectly is the company behind one of the latest trials of UBI in Kenya. I encourage everyone to visit their website to learn more about them. I will be eagerly waiting to see how these trials turn out.