But is the idea of unconditional economic security really so extraordinary? In fact, Finland recently completed a landmark basic income project aimed at just that. And while the results are preliminary, they give us reason to reflect on our own values.
The concept of a universal basic income (UBI) isn’t new, but interest has picked up in recent years. A state-dispensed, unconditional cash stipend for every single citizen — whether willing to work or not — has been touted as a way to decrease welfare bureaucracy, give workers more bargaining power and perhaps end deep poverty as a whole.
One of the main goals of the Finnish project was to test whether a basic income would promote employment. The program handed 2,000 unemployed citizens 560 euros (about $635) per month for two years, from January 2017 to December 2018. The money was unconditional: Participants would continue to get the stipend even if they found work.
Findings from the first year of the program were released Feb. 8. On the work front, the program wasn’t much of a success: During the first 12 months, at least, basic income recipients fared no better or worse at finding employment than a control group.
But it made a radical difference in other ways.
“The basic income recipients of the test group reported better well being in every way,” chief researcher Olli Kangas told Reuters. They experienced fewer problems related to health, stress and ability to concentrate. They were more confident in their futures and their ability to influence social matters. Their trust in institutions increased.
The United States should take note. As we shuffle through an “epidemic of loneliness,” with “deaths of despair” peaking and wages stagnating for all but top earners, an increase in well-being doesn’t seem like an outcome to dismiss. If a UBI had such an impact in Finland, which was already ranked by the United Nations as the “happiest country in the world,” imagine how much more of one it could have in the United States.
Alas, this is where reality intervenes.
“But Finland is not Americaland,” said a European acquaintance, skeptical of whether results their could mean anything here. Finland boasts dramatically low levels of poverty, and a robust safety net is already part of its national culture. The United States, on the other hand, maintains a level of individual economic tenuousness that’s fairly unique in the developed world. When it comes to safety nets, there’s not much to catch us when things go wrong.
As journalist Annie Lowrey, whose book “Give People Money” surveyed basic income programs around the world, points out, the United States is distinguished both by its exaltation of self-sufficiency and its unique racial divide. As it turns out, racism makes it hard to improve the safety net: Research shows that whites are less likely to support welfare programs when they’re told that blacks might benefit, even if they themselves are receiving social support. In fact, this was a flaw in the original New Deal: Agricultural and domestic laborers, most of whom were black, were purposefully excluded from many of the New Deal’s most important provisions.
“Even the groups we agree deserve protection” — children, the elderly, the infirm — “we don’t do a good job of protecting. We could end child poverty, but we’ve chosen not to,” Lowery says.
As a result, most Americans look askance at the idea of giving anyone anything free, let alone something as intangible as well-being. It’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, after all. Actually getting it is up to you.
But what if we thought differently?
Well-being — happiness in some sense — is what the best versions of our ragged welfare programs aim for. Health is a key measure of well-being. Adequate food and housing support it. Education is meant to support civic trust and provide hope for the future.
We could also stand to reflect on how the well-being of others impacts our own. And as the specter of automation and mass unemployment draws nearer, remember that we’ll all be trapped here together. (Excluding, perhaps, those lucky billionaires who have already planned to flee to the moon — or New Zealand.)
Yet it’s possible that our thinking is beginning to change, at least around the edges. A limited UBI pilot will begin in Stockton, Calif., this month, while another has been proposed for Chicago. It’s in this phase that we should take the time to ask the questions that will shape the programs, and how we perceive the results. Which outcomes do we really care about? Which ones should we? Work isn’t all that matters. Improving well-being is a more than respectable goal.