The Basic Income—An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

With its promise of lifting people out of poverty and ending the need for food banks, the Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) sounds radical, and even subversive, an invitation to create a shiftless, dependent population—but it may be an idea whose time has come.

This is not a new thought—Thomas Moore wrote about it in Utopia, (published in 1516), in which he explored some of the problems of society. Observing the stern measures that were being taken against thieves, and recalling a conversation with John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, he wrote:

“We’re hanging them all over the place, I’ve seen as many as twenty on a single gallows. And that’s what I find so odd. Considering how few of them get away with it, how come we are still plagued with so many robbers? Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse.”

His close friend and fellow humanist, Johannes Vives (1492-1540), took the idea further and worked out a detailed scheme. Without putting a name to it, those early thinkers unconsciously initiated the idea of a basic income, given freely, with no strings attached.

The idea continued to grow during the 20th century

Many great philosophers have joined the discussion: Bertrand Russell wrote about it in 1918 in Roads to Freedom, (page 143) advocating a small income for all, and famously saying,

“When education is finished, no one should be compelled to work, and those who choose not to work should receive a bare livelihood and be left completely free.”

Also in the 1900s, Friedrich Hayek, and liberal economists and thinkers Buckminster Fuller, and Martin Luther King Jr. entered the discussion, defending the idea.

The Guaranteed Basic Income, an elegantly simple idea

It’s simple, and can be framed in a few words:

A basic income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.

Here are five of its main characteristics:

Periodic: it is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant.
Cash payment: it is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use. The amount varies, but an average of $10,000 a year is common.
Individual: it is paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households.
Universal: it is paid to all, without means test.
Unconditional: it is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.

Note: In order to promote fairness, the GBI is subject to tax based clawback of income.

Where does the GBI stand today?

Today, the idea is newly popular.  Social reformers like James Tobin, Stephen Hawking, Robert Reich and Bernie Sanders are advancing a new concern, based on the threat of massive unemployment caused by the technological explosion.

The GBI has already been implemented in several countries: Finland, Kenya, The Netherlands, and California— all programs offer a regular income to selected populations. Closer to home, in Alaska, what started as an oil dividend scheme now provides all official residents (currently 650,000 people) with a uniform dividend resembling a basic income.

In other countries, the concept of GBI is having an uncertain start. It is introduced and debated, then frequently put on the shelf for a later date. Governments start out with good intentions—they know the need is there, but their political will is swayed by fear that a guaranteed income would bankrupt a country and encourage idleness. For example, France and Portugal introduced a basic income years ago, only to change it into a more conservative model later on.

To me, it’s clear—a minimum income would mean a significant reduction of government involvement in citizens’ lives, and the elimination of the “judgmental” aspects of social programs like welfare and unemployment insurance.

And what about Canada?

GBI already exists in some form in Canada via the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for seniors and the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) for families with children, but the long term proposal is for something much more universal.

Glen Hodgson, chief economist with Conference Board of Canada, is supportive of the idea, observing:

“If they take the initiative and go out and find a job we penalize them by taking big chunks of their other income, The attractiveness of the guaranteed income model is you can have a very low marginal tax rate and provides the incentive to actually go out and earn more without losing your base. And then the higher your earnings, the higher your tax rate becomes. And at some point you become financially independent.”

This spring, Ontario was the first to provide residents with free annual income (up to $17,000 for single people). This is not a true GBI program (see above), but rather an experiment which targets certain residents of three Ontario cities, who are living in poverty, unemployed, underemployed, homeless or working minimum-wage jobs.

These are early days, and it has not been reported yet whether the extra funds improve peoples’ job prospects and/or quality of life.

As a resident of Canada, I am firmly in the cheering section. I understand, however, that social change has always traveled a tough road. A shift in attitudes about transforming poverty is slowly evolving, but has not yet reached a critical mass.

Michael Rosenfeld, an associate sociology professor at Stanford University, in a discussion about  social change says this:

“The people who are not sort of really ideologically committed to one side or the other,  see which way the wind is blowing and they move with that. The only question is when the movement will hit the tipping point and the rest will follow.”

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22 Responses to The Basic Income—An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

  1. Janis says:

    Very interesting concept that gets discussed more and more. I think with the coming massive unemployment due to automation and AI (something that is not being discussed enough), a guaranteed income might be a solution – or at least a bandaid.

    I’m pretty sure California isn’t one of the places offering this, though… at least I’ve never received my check 😀. Maybe you meant Canada?

  2. This post was SO INTERESTING! I was not familiar with many of the people whose ideas you discussed and/or quoted. Thank you for this research and for bringing the idea to our attention, and the places where a guaranteed basic income is already a reality.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Thanks, Rin. I love delving into history to find where ideas originated—so fascinating! Every idea started somewhere, with some person. Usually, they suffered for their innovative thoughts. The established world does not like to have the status quo disturbed!

  3. Joe Wasylyk says:

    The Guaranteed Basic Income is a good idea for most people however; just like providing affordable (free) housing for the homeless the GBI is only the FIRST step. Extra income by itself might not be enough especially if the low or middle income classes presently unemployed, on welfare or AISH lose their free health benefits, because government agencies would be freed from these responsibilities. As a result we will probably have more social problems. There are many people in Canada falling through the cracks simply because the system is not equipped to solve some of the difficult problems such as mental health, physical disabilities, aging, and substance abuse.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Yes, Joe, social change is a sloooow process. All we can count on is three steps forward, two steps back. But eventually, change does occur, and we have to be grateful for that!

  4. I thought Finland was like Ontario, trying it on a limited basis to check out the idea. That strikes me as the sane approach.

  5. there are different levels here in NZ – the only GBI is when you reach 65 and you automatically have a right to a certain amount of money, also depends on your status, if you are home alone you get more (from the rich to the poor) but if you don’t own your home, have no other income or similar – then you have to have additions.

    I am on that GBI and you also get a gold card that entitles you to other things including certain times free public transport, discounts at places, etc.

    But because it’s not enough to cover even my rent, I get extras including supplements for disability, accommodation, water rates, small extra for power/phone, medications AND because even that’s not enough, I get extra so I can at least “live/eat/play”

    whereas a friend of mine who is home alone gets just that and the basic rate – because she has other income and owns her own house etc.

    now don’t get all worried about whether I’m scraping the bottom of a barrel, because I’m not – I come from a background of “a stitch in time” “stretching the pennies” and I’m not running a car, an Hire Purchase or similar extras…I do have an extra but is the student loan & certain amount of money leaves my GBI at the coalface so it’s been dripfed payoff…

    Before your golden pumpkin arrives 🙂 there are differing levels but I know that it has been advised/thought about to bring GBI or as it’s seems to be known here as Universal Income – it has never happened, as far as I’m aware

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Hi Cathy. I’m relieved that your basic amount is supplemented, which covers some of the expenses that make it possible for you to make ends meet. It sounds to me that you are a good money manager. From what you say, the basic income you have in NZ is based on your needs, which makes it different from the Guaranteed Basic Income I wrote about. In the case of a true GBI, everyone in the program gets the same amount, and then the surplus is clawed back through income tax.

      • the problem with a GBI for a country like my own – is that we are very small population and it probably wouldn’t be feasible for the gov’t to do this…you know how their “book balance gurus” argue that it would bankrupt the country…:-)

        even now there people moaning about the amount of golden pumpkin takers – with the notion on the table yet again to raise the age of getting automatic golden pumpkin. In my life it has jumped from 60 – 65.

        recently when I wanted to move into a retirement type unit, even as a renter I could in some places, I was told you’ve got to be 70! Hence, I’m stuck in private rental but I’m all good with that as it’s a relatively nice place…etc.

        People are living longer, etc. In a couple of days time my elderly sister turns 92 and there have been some close calls in the last 15 years, that she’s going to snuff it…but somehow with all the extra care provided by medical system she keeps on keeping on…

        • Still the Lucky Few says:

          Every country has a sector that claims that doing anything for the poor would ‘bankrupt the country’. Turns out that increased medical costs and other social problems escalate when people do not have the money they need to survive. That ends up costing more.

          • that is so correct – the people don’t have the money to go to the doctor, even they are eligible for free health care – because they are afraid “someone will come down on them, investigate certain home circumstances or the like”

            of they go to an ER where the wait may be long but the care will be free…

            we have free hospital care here, even if wait lists stretch long…but also you can go private but for that you need savings or an health insurance.

            some parents are apparently not allowing even their children to go to school, because they won’t be able to provide them with a lunch box…or even a nutritional breakfast.

          • Still the Lucky Few says:

            Yes, I’ve taught in some of those schools. Our district provided breakfast for children who left home with nothing to eat.

  6. Rummuser says:

    This topic is not on our agenda here in India. I don’t see it becoming one in the foreseeable future as more pressing matters need our attention. Reforms initiated recently need time to start producing the kind of results that we need before welfare state matters can be attended to.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I totally agree. From what I read, most basic income schemes are experimental at this stage. But the need for such programs is growing, as automation affects the job market.

  7. I eagerly await the results of the GIS trial in three Ontario communities. Before introduction, some cities competed for the status of trial communities while other cities were strongly opposed to the concept. You’re so right when you say there is strong debate on this type of social policy. I believe that GIS for seniors has helped many people achieve dignity as they grow older; I’m sure that a universal GIS program will be introduced as technology robs more communities of essential jobs.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Those are my feelings as well, Jeanette. I know of several older people, between the ages of 50 and 65, who are experiencing difficulties in ability to work, and are hanging on, looking forward to the day they can receive their Old Age Pension and for some, a Guaranteed Income Supplement—two programs that remove the anxiety of not having enough money. Sadly, those programs are not universally adopted throughout the world.

  8. Jane Willis says:

    Add in universal health care and wd would have it all! Nice to think about.

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