Guaranteed Basic Income—Still a Utopian Dream?

There’s no doubt that talk of a guaranteed basic income (GBI) is gaining momentum. It’s not a groundswell by any means—it hasn’t caught the interest of a critical mass, but its slowly becoming a buzzword.

Last week I wrote about the GBI, discussing its history, and listing countries that have already implemented a version of it. I realize now, as I continue my research, that some of my facts were not completely accurate, so I’m revisiting it.

Here’s how the GBI currently stands:

In Kenya, participants from selected villages are included in a basic income project. They receive a basic income through a charity program, GiveDirectly, a New York-based nonprofit. Initiated in the fall of 2016, this 12 year pilot program includes 95 participants in a rural village in Western Kenya, who receive about $22US every month, to save or spend as they see fit. Before GiveDirectly began the payments, many people in the village were living on less than $0.75US a day. Afterwards, an analysis claimed that “for 45% of the village’s residents, the first month’s basic income payment was the largest amount of money they’d ever had.”

In The Netherlands, Basic Income is in the formative stages. Four municipalities have proposed a social assistance experiment, which would run for two years.

The program, sponsored jointly by the City of Utrecht and the University of Utrecht, is named ‘See What Works‘, and compares four types of basic income and a control group. The first will give people about $980US, with no strings, and allow as much work as people want—this is a true version of basic income. The other groups will test this version against other groups that will volunteer, or not work at all.

The sponsors will assess what effect the payments have on how much people want to work, and their level of well-being. Helen de Boer, a councilor for the Green Party, says that the money will be paid regardless of income or employment status. It isn’t a free ride, she says–$1,000 isn’t enough to live an expansive life; it’s a stepping stone.

In North America, three experiments have been launched: Oakland, California, is the location of a pilot program offered by Y Combinator, a tech hub for young companies, that will grant a basic income to 100 Oakland residents for between six months to a year.

Elizabeth Rhodes, the project’s research director, recently announced that the tentative plan is to give participants between $1,000US and $2,000US a month. The goal is simply to see what will happen — if they’ll be happier, better off and more financially stable.

Alaska, has a state-wide version of UBI. In 1976, Alaskans voted to share their considerable oil riches with future generations. The Alaska Permanent Fund was created to extend dividends to all citizens who lived there for an entire year before applying. To this day, Alaska residents get a lump sum payment of up to $2072US a year (adjusted to stock market performance). While nothing like a true GBI program, it stands as an example of how wealth can be shared among all citizens.

Canada enters the GBI debate with a bold experiment involving three Ontario cities, Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. Randomly chosen residents of these cities will be provided with free income to pay for their basic needs. Unlike a true GBI, which is universal, the program will focus on the province’s working poor, unemployed and homeless residents.

In an April 24th article, The Globe and Mail reports that the experiment will involve 4000 residents, which wll be split into two groups, one receiving the basic income as early as this summer. The other, a control group, will have no payments. Single recipients could receive up to $16,989Cdn a year, married people up to $24, 027Cdn. An objective of this experiment is to test whether an unconditional basic income will help improve people’s job prospects and quality of life.

Among Basic Income Projects, Finland is the Star

A report by Public Radio International says:

“…But it’s in Finland that the concept of a Guaranteed Basic Income may be the farthest along. This Nordic nation launched a basic income experiment in January of this year. Every month, the country gives $600 to some 2,000 unemployed people between the ages of 25 and 58. Each will receive this monthly financial stipend, unconditionally, for two years.”
With only a small part of the Finish population participating, it is clear that Finland is not actually on the verge of adopting a basic income for all. However, it is conducting the most methodologically rigorous and comprehensive test of basic income to date. And that alone is significant.

Ollie Kangas, director of research, praises their testing methods, saying that their results should be very significant for all international watchers of the progress of the GBI.

The Future of Basic Income

I am encouraged by the existing GBI experimental programs. After lingering on the edges of academic thinking for years, the universal basic income has, over the past year, appeared as a popular concept among thinktanks and progressive politicians.

Supporters of UBI say that as technology changes work, the current approaches addressing unemployment and social problems are becoming irrelevant.

A universal basic income could, they argue, protect the increasing numbers working in an unstable labour market. I’m hopeful that more trials of UBI will take place around the world, and that the existing experiments will continue and expand—and this promising idea will not become just another Utopian dream.

I’m including a 2017 TED talk at a conference in Vancouver, Canada, by Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists. It was viewed over one millon times, and is worth a listen:

Rutger Bregman’s TED Talk, a Basic Income lecture with over one million views

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18 Responses to Guaranteed Basic Income—Still a Utopian Dream?

  1. Again, it’s best to try it on a small scale first to get more data. Good for Finland and the other experimenters!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Well, Monk, it’s clear now that all involved are taking a cautious route to this. Some articles I read initially, definite left the impression that various countries had committed themselves to a basic income program. This is a better way, for sure.

  2. Fascinating update to your earlier post. Thanks for the new info!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I was dismayed when I discovered that I had bought into some misinformation—so decided to correct it ASAP! This is far too important an issue to be careless with it. Thanks for your interest!

  3. Lynne Spreen says:

    It’s the only thing that makes me feel a little better about all the disruption. My grandkids are able to learn and master a skill–they’re smart and not lazy–but what happens when that skill is automated or unnecessary? It feels like we’re going back to the days when people had to resort to more primitive survival mechanisms for older age, like having a dozen kids to ensure they’d help you survive, or everybody living in one house so you always have a roof over your head. Growing your own food. Etc. Is this the shining future we envisioned? At least with a basic guaranteed income (and guaranteed access to health care) we wouldn’t have to return to the caves. Thanks for another smart, informative post, Diane.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It’s quite evident that there will be disruption as the technological revolution unfolds. It’s unlikely, sadly, that corporations will put people (not profit) first. So it’s critical that we be prepared—and there’s nothing like education and information to enlighten us!

  4. Joe Wasylyk says:

    @Diane, Let’s keep this important discussion on a Guaranteed Business Income (GBI)going until we get a breakthrough. If Finland is suppose to be the furthest along then we’re in trouble. Apparently, Finland gives $600 to some 2,000 unemployed people between the ages of 25 and 58. I’m wondering if this group has run out of their Employment Insurance Benefit and is not able to qualify for Social Assistance payments? Ending the program at age 58 is also showing their ageism because older people over the age of 58 being unemployed is a curse until the Social Security Benefits kick in. Also, today $600 might only get you a room in a cheap rundown apartment with no money available to buy anything else.

    Anyways, I watched the Rutger Bregman’s TED Talk ‘A Basic Income’ lecture. He instructs that the place that’s further along and is doing it the right way is Dauphin,Manitoba Canada. In Dauphin the measuring stick used is the ‘Poverty Level Income’ underestimated but readily available at Statistics Canada. Here people are given enough cash to cover their Basic Income which is suppose to cover their Food, Shelter and Education expenses. This would get the Basic Income closer or just over $20,000 CDN per year. So Basic Income is really a living wage not the undersized peanuts that most Governments in the world are giving out today. Apparently, the lecture goes on to say that our present income tax system could be adjusted to pay for the extra costs generated by giving out a Basic Income to people in Canada.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      All good ideas, Joe. I agree that the GBI should be closer to $20,000 per person per year. I guess the sentiment is that starting with a small amount is better than not starting at all. I hope (and don’t yet know), that something will be built into the Finnish experiment which will allow them to extrapolate into a higher amount. Otherwise, it will be meaningless. Here is a link to a write-up about the experiment in Dauphin, which ended after 5 years. It was a brave social experiment, and deserves a deeper look, which I hope to do for a future article. Thanks, Joe, for bringing it forward!

  5. joared says:

    I think the Alaska approach makes sense but have reservations about the other approaches. Trials of differing plans seem a wise road to take in various locales across the country. Hadn’t realized there was this much activity on the topic, so thanks for info.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      You may like the Alaska approach because it relies on dividends from currently active investments. I know it’s reassuring to know that a basic income would not dip into public coffers. That’s the sticking point of most of these programs, and that’s why they demand such close examination before much thought is given to their implementation, experimental or otherwise. Thanks, Joared.

  6. Jane Willis says:

    Thanks for all the information! Hopefully we can evolve!

  7. P&L says:

    Hopefully some politician will have enough sense to look on the other side of the fence and see the need of the seniors (and the poor)..

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      P&L, you have pinpointed the two groups who will need the benefit of a secured basic income in the future! Thanks!

  8. maddy says:

    The poor and the elderly combined will soon become the majority!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      We can’t let that happen. As always, education and awareness will make the difference. Both take time!

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