Economic Growth

What happened to all the hype about Universal Basic Income?

A woman counts U.S. dollar bills at her home in Buenos Aires, Argentina August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci - RC1F1F4E9690

Money for nothing - is it too good to be true? Image: REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

Olivia Goldhill
Weekend Writer, Quartz
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Three years ago, it was hard to avoid all the Universal Basic Income (UBI) trials. First Finland announced that it would launch a UBI experiment, then Switzerland voted on (but rejected) a UBI trial. Next Ontario, Canada announced it was getting in on the game, followed by proposed experiments in Utrecht, Barcelona, California, and Kenya.

Cut to two years later, in 2018, and Finland announced that its trial would not continue beyond the end of the year. Ontario politicians ended their pilot two years early. Multiple articles interpreted these moves as signs of failure, and it seemed as though we were giving up on UBI before it had even begun.

Although the hype around UBI may have died down, the research is ongoing. Matt Bruenig, contributor at progressive think tank Demos, notes that the data from the Finland experiment is published with a one year delay, so we currently only have data on the first year of the experiment. “They found the UBI had no effect on employment but did increase self-reported happiness/health/well-being,” he notes in an email to Quartz.

Image: Kela

And much of the data has yet to be gathered. Jason Murphy, assistant professor of philosophy at Elms College in Massachusetts, who manages the US Basic Income Guarantee Network Facebook page, says he expects the Barcelona experiment, which is still underway, will produce particularly interesting results. He notes that it’s received far less international scrutiny than the Finnish trial, which could help, since attention can affect the results of social-science trials.

The trial in Kenya, run by nonprofit GiveDirectly, is scheduled to run for 12 years. Universal basic income proponents note that a short-term trial does not capture the full impact of UBI; after all, someone cannot invest in their future or make major life changes if they fear a key source income will disappear in a matter of months.

Beyond the quality of data and design of experiments, further momentum for UBI likely depends on political willpower. The decision to end the Ontario UBI pilot was widely perceived as political; the program was implemented by a liberal government and cancelled by a conservative one. “All of the evidence from the project demonstrated the pilot was helping people get back into the workforce, eat healthier and participate in community activities,” Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, which helped enroll citizens in the UBI plan, told Motherboard when the program was cancelled.

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Elsewhere, though, there are signs of growing political interest. Karl Widerquist, associate professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, and co-chair of the Basic Income Earth network, notes that US presidential candidate Andrew Yang, whose platform is founded on support for UBI, has qualified for the Democratic debates. Meanwhile, another Democratic candidate, Pete Buttigieg, says UBI is “worth taking seriously” and has discussed its potential benefits. The “Green New Deal” platform unveiled with great fanfare by congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats, namechecks “basic income programs.”

“My guess is that introducing basic income will take a movement of people getting fed up with the punishing and insufficient safety net we have, and realizing that it’s bad for all workers to be put in the position where they have to take a job to survive,” says Widerquist. Don’t expect UBI to be unleashed on a large scale any time soon. But, at the same time, even if the hype has died down, interest in the policy is alive and well.

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