There was a mistaken perception in the middle of 2018 that Finland – under its centre-right government – had put an end to its universal basic income experiment. As Wired magazine reminded us, this was not exactly so: what happened was that the Government had refused to extend it beyond its initial plan, but were going to process the findings, and see if they supported a resumption and expansion in 2020.
And this week, we have the preliminary results of the Finnish experiment (here’s the main report and PDF). As reported by the New Scientist, one of its immediate results is that it disproves one of the phobias about UBI – that it reduces the incentives to take up paid work (the “free-rider” problem):
The experiment began in December 2016. Kela, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, randomly selected 2000 people aged between 25 and 58 from across the country who were on unemployment benefits.
It then replaced those people’s benefits with a guaranteed payment of €560 a month. They would continue receiving the payments whether they got a job or not.
The experiment ended on 31 December 2018… It compared the income, employment status and general wellbeing of those who received the UBI with a control group of 5000 who carried on receiving benefits.
There was no difference between the two groups in terms of the number of days in employment in 2017 – both groups worked on average 49 days. The UBI trial group only earned €21 less on average than the control group during 2017.
What is really interesting are the reported levels of heightened wellbeing among those experimenting. “The surveys also showed that the UBI group perceived their health and stress levels to be significantly better than in the control group”, reports the NS.
In Scotland, the RSA are cooperating with Fife council (and the Scottish government) to start a UBI experiment there. Their Scottish lead, Jamie Cooke, wrote in the Scotsman:
The Finnish participants perceived their well-being to be better at the end of the experiment, and demonstrated fewer stress indicators than the other group. And crucially, those receiving basic income had a more positive view of their future and a more positive view of others and society – basic income had helped to increase hope and trust.
One of the key reasons I support the idea of testing basic income in Scotland is precisely because I believe it could be the foundation to a renewed social contract. Our current system is one rooted in suspicion, sanctions and stigma – it is not surprising in the slightest that those kind of negative (and counter-productive) attitudes tarnish the rest of our social interactions, and fuel the rise of disconnect and anger that we have seen.
Our friends from Finland have shown in these early results that an alternative vision is a very real possibility – we just need the right policy.
In the coverage around this report, the Scandinavian advocate Rutger Bregman has noted that we should just be relying on the Finnish experiment for data on the effects of UBI. Take for example the Smoky Mountain experiment, where Native American residents have been receiving an unconditional stipend from the casino complex opened there – and the results in terms of wellbeing and development are clear and beneficial.
Our interest in UBI (and for that matter, a shorter working week) is pretty straightforward: it gives people more time, space and resources to be active citizens, rather than just workers/consumers.
Automation and climate change are going to radically transform the latter. And if we create more opportunities for people to be the former, active citizenship will provide the best chance that we can change our lifestyles and societies in a healthy and constructive way, Rather than in a state of reactive fear and panic (easily exploitable by those with a brutal commercial interest in chaos).
So local UBI experiments, with the full buy-in of the community (as seems to be happening in Fife) are incredibly important. The big legal and institutional change has to link directly to a local feeling of more opportunities to be confident, free and exert power. We’ll watch this space throughout 2019 and beyond.