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Topic: universal income

Addressing the evidence deficit: how experimentation and microsimulation can inform the basic income debate

📥  universal income

Dr Luke Martinelli is Research Associate on the IPR's universal basic income project. This post draws in part on material presented in his recent IPR working paper The Fiscal and Distributional Implications of Alternative Universal Basic Income Schemes in the UK.

New and forthcoming IPR working papers – as well as experimental data from policy trials currently and imminently taking place across the world – address some of the core empirical issues around the feasibility of universal basic income (UBI), and how it can be designed most effectively. However, no amount of evidence can provide an escape from difficult political choices in the face of unavoidable conflicts between policy goals – or eliminate the need for advocates to address longstanding normative objections to UBI.



Despite numerous and well-publicised desirable qualities which appeal across the political spectrum, the case in favour of universal basic income (UBI) is far from decisive. There is much we still don’t know about UBI that must be addressed in order for the policy to move beyond superficial, ‘cheap’ support and to gain serious traction in the political sphere.

As Malcolm Torry argued in a previous post, as policymakers have begun to pay increasing attention to grassroots enthusiasm for UBI and acknowledge its theoretical strengths (as well as the weaknesses of existing social security provisions), there has been a shift from concerns about whether UBI is desirable per se, to questions of political feasibility and the best way to design and implement the policy. According to Torry, this progression is “evidence for the increasingly serious nature of the current debate”.

What policymakers need to know

Objections to UBI are numerous, but it is perhaps possible to identify three core barriers to feasibility as follows:

  • it would dis-incentivise work and encourage idleness;
  • it would be too costly; and
  • it would be inadequate to meet the diverse and complex needs of the poor.

As a result of these attributes – which are also, of course. inherently undesirable – sceptical observers have claimed that UBI would never generate the political support required for implementation. If labour supply was expected to contract significantly, the tax base would collapse and the policy would be seen as unsustainable. If the cost was seen as too high, voters would not consent to the requisite tax rises. And if disadvantaged people were to become poorer as a result, the policy would be seen as unacceptably unjust.

In response, advocates have claimed on the contrary that UBI would remove poverty and unemployment traps, would only require minor tax increases, and could easily accommodate provisions for those with higher needs (for example due to disability or housing costs).

Of course, the extent to which these attributes pertain – the labour market effects, fiscal costs, and distributional implications – depends wholly upon the specifics of the UBI scheme in question. As I discussed in a previous post, while basic income’s core attributes are a matter of definition, many are variable: most crucially, the level of payments, and the extent to which the UBI is conceived as replacement for or complement to existing benefits.

UBI is often discussed as a monolithic policy, which obscures clear understanding about likely effects; opponents debate at cross purposes, discussing completely different schemes and using them to support their favoured stance. Common ground – and an end to the impasse on these core issues – can only be achieved as a result of greater clarity about the diversity of proposals that exist, and the specific effects of varying core design features.

Policymakers are ultimately concerned about the practicalities of implementation: they need to know which schemes are feasible in the short- to medium-term, in the prevailing socio-political climate. They simply cannot afford to entertain utopian visions of a future in which no-one is compelled to work, or in which people are happy to accept tax rates an order of magnitude greater than those prevailing today. If they are to support UBI, they need to know whether the aforementioned barriers to feasibility can be bypassed – and how.

Fortunately, empirical evidence can help to assess the contradictory claims of advocates and opponents more effectively. There are two main forms of evidence: ex-ante (‘before the event’) models/simulations and ex-post (‘after the fact’) impact evaluations.

Ex-post evidence

Trials and policy experiments are important for several reasons. Most obviously, they give us important information about the effects of implementing basic income that cannot be gleaned from theory (for example and probably most crucially, on disputed labour market behavioural effects, but also on other non-financial outcomes such as health and wellbeing). Trials are also invaluable in uncovering unexpected outcomes and implementation issues, and in fine-tuning the detail of the policy in advance of scaling-up.

Perhaps equally importantly, they serve to foment conversation and political debate which simply would not occur in the absence of the trial. As Jurgen De Wispelaere observed in an IPR seminar, experiments

have important political demonstration effects… advancing the policy agenda by raising awareness amongst key stakeholders/general public, keeping open a window of opportunity, building a broad political coalition “en route”, and overcoming objections by demonstrating impacts

Basic income advocates have long drawn on trials that took place in the US and Canada between 1968 and 1980 (Widerquist, 2005). Observers note that despite some contraction in labour supply, these were far from the employment exodus predicted by UBI’s harshest critics; Forget (2011) has documented the health and wellbeing benefits of the Canadian trials.

There are also two prominent historical examples of universal payment programmes (not trials) in diverse country contexts: the Alaskan Permanent Fund Dividend and Iran’s reform of consumption subsidies (Widerquist and Howard, 2012; De Wispelaere, 2016). These examples demonstrate the administrative and political feasibility of UBI-type schemes. Experiments with basic income have recently taken place in Namibia (Haarmann et al., 2009) and India (Davala et al., 2015) with strong positive findings. Standing (2008) argues that the lessons from the implementation of various forms of (non-UBI) cash transfer in developing countries also provide compelling evidence in favour of UBI, in that negative labour market responses have been minimal and it is likely that the poor use income transfers to invest in productive activities – not for frivolous consumption, as is often portrayed.

Since 1 January this year, 2,000 Finnish individuals have been receiving an unconditional payment of €560 per month as part of a two-year government pilot. A number of city authorities in the Netherlands have been granted permission – under central government legislation allowing policy experimentation – to conduct trials eliminating the imposition of behavioural (labour market) conditions for benefit claimants. Both trials look sure to provide valuable information on how recipients respond to unconditional payments.

There is now a spate of proposals for further pilot schemes to be implemented in the coming years. Some of the interest has come from devolved regional and city-level authorities (Ontario in Canada; Fife and Glasgow in Scotland); some has come from the development assistance community (as in the case of the Give Directly pilot in Kenya); some has come from national administrations (India); and some has come from the private (tech) sector (Y-Combinator in California).

Limits to experimental evidence

However, there are limits to the insights that can be gained from the aforementioned experiments, including the ongoing Finnish and Dutch case studies.

In many cases the experiments fall far short of the evidential requirements of randomised control trials – the so-called ‘gold standard’ of policy evaluation. This is certainly the case in the example of the Namibian Basic Income Grant scheme, which is heavily criticised by Osterkamp (2013) as employing biased outcome indicators and lacking a control group – but methodological problems abound more broadly. For one thing, trials are necessarily of limited duration, and may not easily pick up longer-term effects of policy. In addition, the behavioural response to a trial of limited duration may be very different to the response to a policy that provides income security for a lifetime.

Further, policy outcomes depend heavily on the specific contexts in which they are implemented, limiting the applicability (or ‘external validity’) of trials to other countries, time periods, or groups of recipients. Experiments carried out in developing countries provide limited insight into the potential for basic income to be inserted into comprehensive welfare states such as the UK’s. The US and Canadian experiments are now several decades old. In the case of the experiments in Finland and the Netherlands, researchers are limited in applying the UBI ‘treatment’ on existing benefit claimants. It is not clear how the observed effects would vary to those for other groups in the context of a truly universal payment.

Most of the trials only fairly approximately resemble UBI ‘proper’, or the types of UBI upon which policy interest is most focused today in high-income countries (which aim at least to partially replace existing welfare state policies). The Alaskan and Iranian programmes differ in several crucial respects from the proposals of most basic income advocates, namely in the low and fluctuating value of payments and in their funding mechanisms; being paid from natural resource revenues, they are arguably significantly less likely to face political opposition (De Wispelaere, 2016). The US and Canadian experiments differ in that they involved a tax rebate mechanism based on reported income rather than an upfront payment (these are more usually termed negative income tax schemes rather than UBI). In the Dutch experiments, the implementing authorities were restricted by central government for political reasons, resulting in watered-down research designs. Specifically, claimants in the treatment group can only keep 50% of additional earnings, up to a maximum of €199 (ensuring their total combined income remains less than someone would earn working full-time at minimum wage), completely contradicting the principles of UBI. Even in the Finnish experiment – the first trial that could reasonably be described as a ‘real’ UBI within a high-income, mature welfare state – researchers were unable, for practical and administrative reasons, to implement tax changes alongside the implementation of the UBI (KELA, 2016). Considering that changes to the tax system are almost always a core element of any realistic basic income proposal, this is a significant weakness.

Another crucial limitation is that it seems likely that the effects of upscaling a policy to the national level would result in markedly different effects – with different implementing authorities, and significant macroeconomic effects not captured in the trial. As Widequist (2005) observes, being trials of limited scale, the US and Canadian experiments did not give rise to demand response “and therefore could not estimate the market response” of the policy (p. 50). Moving from an experiment run by a small, dedicated team of researchers to a nation-wide policy administered by a sprawling and perhaps badly-funded bureaucracy is likely to give rise to unforeseen implementation problems. In other words, the effects of a trial may be very different from those of the same policy rolled out across the board.

Finally, even if we are able to observe – reliably – the impacts of a policy, find that the effects are positive, and generalise the findings to another context, experiments such as these do not offer any way of weighing up beneficial impacts (relating to improved income security) against UBI’s fiscal costs (and against the costs and benefits of alternative policies). It is hardly surprising that giving people money would have a number of positive impacts; the question is whether UBI is the best use of the funds.

Ex-ante evidence

Fortunately, these are questions to which ex-ante microsimulation methods can readily be applied.  Microsimulation is a common approach to evaluating the effects of tax and benefit reforms with respect to fiscal implications, distributional effects, and (less commonly) impacts on static work incentives. Advances in computing power combined with the availability of large, representative income surveys makes it possible to compare outcomes of the prevailing ‘base’ policy environment with other hypothetical policy systems. This means that we have much greater capacity to assess and compare large numbers of different permutations of UBI.

Because it models the effects of policy reforms over a representative sample, microsimulation enables researchers to draw an accurate picture of overall impacts on the income distribution at the national level. However, a major shortcoming of this type of analysis is that it assumes no behavioural change (e.g. labour market response). This seems unrealistic in the context of such a wide-ranging reform as the implementation of a universal basic income, especially one paid at a generous level. For these reasons, microsimulation evidence should be complemented with ex-post analysis of observed behavioural responses.

A number of microsimulation studies have already modelled the effects of specific UBI schemes in the UK (e.g. Torry, 2016; Reed and Lansley, 2016). These studies have been instrumental in identifying ‘feasible’ ways of implementing basic income so as to minimise household losses and keep costs within the boundaries of ‘politically acceptable’ tax increases. The downside is that such schemes require the retention of the existing structure of social security alongside the UBI.

With our IPR Working Papers, we add to this burgeoning literature in important ways, with the specific intention of objectively informing policy audiences about the difficult decisions involved in designing UBI schemes. In particular, in The Fiscal and Distributional Implications of Alternative UBI Schemes in the UK, I systematically compare UBI schemes with a range of payment levels and compensatory tax/benefit changes. Unlike previous studies, I start from the presumption that at least part of the appetite for basic income arises from its promise to sweep away the mainstay of complex, intrusive and stigmatising means-tested benefits. In another (forthcoming) paper, Exploring the Distributional and Work Incentive Effects of Plausible UBI Schemes, I look at the distribution of winners and losers in more detail and introduce important indicators of static work incentives.

Combined, these microsimulation studies provide a great deal of important information required by policymakers in assessing competing UBI proposals, particularly bearing in mind the need to restrict net costs and the motivation to reduce poverty and unemployment traps that arise in means-tested systems. ‘Transitional’ forms of UBI – for example, one replacing the personal income tax allowance with a payment of equivalent value, and others covering subsets of the population – are suggestive of possible pathways to more generous and comprehensive forms of UBI. In consideration of the likely political imperatives, we model a number of (broadly) revenue-neutral schemes as well.

The inescapable conclusion of my research is that there are no easy answers to the questions facing UBI advocates; no ‘optimal’ basic income scheme. Rather, policymakers are faced with a series of trade-offs between competing goals of a) meeting need, b) controlling cost and c) retaining administrative simplicity and enhancing work incentives (through the elimination of means-testing). The analysis thus draws our attention to the difficulty involved in designing basic income schemes that satisfactorily compensate existing beneficiaries of the system while retaining the principle of universalism.

Complementary forms of evidence

This blog post has summarised the potential of two forms of evidence to inform debate and bring the current impasse around the feasibility of UBI to a close. I hope to have shown that ex-ante and ex-post studies are complementary; ex-ante simulations can say much about the fiscal and distributional effects of basic income, but nothing about behavioural responses or implementation challenges – and ex-post evaluations can provide insights into these outcomes, but have a number of shortcomings that limit their applicability to wider contexts and their utility in assessing different policy design features against alternatives.

While much public attention has been devoted to the upcoming trials, therefore – and while such trials certainly have their place – they cannot give us the full picture on UBI, particularly in relation to the fiscal feasibility of schemes. This is the value of the microsimulation approach I've presented in the IPR’s work; the evidence generated, I hope, will tell policymakers the other half of the story.

The full working paper The Fiscal and Distributional Implications of Alternative Universal Basic Income Schemes in the UK can be read and downloaded here.



Davala, S., Jhabvala, R., Standing, G. and Mehta, S. K. (2015). Basic income: A transformative policy for India. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

De Wispelaere, J. (2016). “Basic Income in Our Time: Improving Political Prospects Through Policy Learning?” Journal of Social Policy, 45(4): 617-634.

Forget, E. (2011). “The Town with No Poverty: The Health Effects of a Canadian Guaranteed Annual Income Field Experiment.” Canadian Public Policy / Analyse de Politiques, 37(3): 283-305.

Haarmann, C., Haarmann, D., Jauch, H., Shindondola-Mote, H., Nattrass, N., van Niekerk, I. and Samson, M. (2009). Making the difference! – The basic income grant in Namibia. Assessment Report. Windhoek: BIG Coalition.

KELA (2016). From Idea to Experiment: Report on universal basic income experiment in Finland. KELA Working Paper 106/2016. Helsinki: KELA.

Osterkamp, R. “The Basic Income Grant Pilot Project in Namibia: A Critical Assessment.” Basic Income Studies, 8(1): 71-91.

Standing, G. (2008). “How Cash Transfers Promote the Case for Basic Income.” Basic Income Studies, 3(1).

Widerquist, K. (2005). “A failure to communicate: what (if anything) can we learn from the negative income tax experiments?” The Journal of Socio-Economics, 34(2005): 49-81.

Widerquist, K. and Howard, M. (eds.) (2012). Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend: Examining Its Suitability as a Model. New York: Palgrave.


Basic income: beyond left and right?

📥  universal income

Joe Chrisp is a PhD student at the IPR. His doctoral research is on the feasibility of a universal basic income

How has basic income – an issue at the margins of social policy and politics for decades – suddenly become such a hot topic? And why has it captured the attention of so many political actors, in a number of different countries, in recent months?



One of the most common explanations of this surge of interest in basic income is that it transcends the political divide: that it is “beyond left and right”. In the UK, the Adam Smith Institute – a libertarian think-tank – sits alongside the left-leaning Compass in backing basic income proposals. In Finland, the country where basic income has had perhaps the most consistent political support in recent decades, the Left Alliance and Green League have historically been keen supporters of the idea – together with the Centre Party, which currently leads a right-wing coalition government. This kind of broad political interest can be found in France, Canada and other countries around the world. Although it is tempting to accept this eclectic mix as a given, there are at least three reasons why the reality is more complex than ‘anyone can support basic income’.

Is it basic income?

The first explanation for the diversity of support is simply that basic income is being misrepresented. If we define basic income as ‘an income paid by a political community to all its members on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement’ (Van Parijs, 2004), many of its so-called ‘advocates’ are actually proposing schemes that do not meet the criteria. For example, Italy’s 5 Star Movement has adopted the term to designate a policy that is better described as means-tested unemployment benefit or social assistance for the uninsured. The Fabian Society’s proposal for an ‘individual credit’ has often been touted as a basic income, yet is more closely related to a ‘participation income’ (A.B. Atkinson, 1996), as it includes work- or education-related conditionality.

The vast majority of those on the political right who are said to support basic income, from Milton Friedman to the Canadian Conservative MP Hugh Segal to the Adam Smith Institute, actually advocate a negative income tax. Although negative income tax is capable of producing identical distributional outcomes to basic income, the payment mechanisms and underlying logic differ substantially, particularly in relation to the role of the state. Even the basic income experiments in Finland and the Netherlands fall short of Van Parijs’ definition because they are not universal; they are currently limited to unemployed individuals. While the focus in the Finnish case is on testing the impact on labour market participation, in the Netherlands the drive seems to be related to municipalities’ concern about the cost of enforcing work conditionality on the unemployed. All of these deviations lend themselves to the argument made by Declan Gaffney that basic income is most useful as a thought experiment for the sort of reforms we want to implement within the welfare state, as there will be adjustments made to the ‘pure’ version that reflect the different political positions held by advocates in constrained political and fiscal environments.

How do we fund a basic income?

Another reason why basic income appears to find support across the political spectrum is that its advocates don’t cohere around a specific set of proposals for funding its introduction. Were they to do so, they would confront significant ideological or normative choices that would divide them. Luke Martinelli lays out many of these fiscal trade-offs in his recent IPR blog and in a forthcoming working paper, but it is worth reiterating some of his arguments in light of Malcolm Torry’s response. The first crucial point to make is that choosing to abolish the tax threshold to fund a basic income is not, as Torry comes close to implying, an apolitical decision. Putting national insurance aside, if the tax-free allowance of £11,000 was abolished, the UK government budget would increase by roughly £72 billion. That would amount to a 10% increase in government revenue and, if all of it was used to fund a basic income without offsetting cuts, government spending would shift from 43% of GDP to roughly 47%.

Given that attitudes to the size of the state are one of the most fundamental expressions of one’s ideological position, it is unsurprising that this way of funding a basic income does not elicit support from all parts of the political spectrum. Regardless of whether the revenue is earmarked for basic income in the short-term, such a reform empowers the state with resources that could be used for different ends. This fact explains the preference for negative income tax over basic income among libertarian advocates, as it would not necessarily increase the size of the state. If accompanied with cuts to social security, a negative income tax could reduce government expenditure. Indeed, precisely the opposite logic to the Torry and Compass basic income models has defined recent Conservative and Coalition tax and welfare reforms. The policy of increasing the tax free allowance – and, to a lesser extent, the minimum wage – while cutting tax credits has been at the core of Conservative plans to reduce the proportion of income provided by the government to low-income households.

This is not to say that the basic income models laid out by Torry or Compass are flawed, but simply that they are inherently political. Attempts to coalesce around a single “feasible” proposal may be tactically sound, but these cannot be abstracted from their ideological assumptions. There is no ‘common sense’ or technocratic basic income proposal. It is also worth adding that these models are all very UK-centric. The apparent simplicity of reducing means-tested social assistance and abolishing the tax threshold to fund a basic income cannot be applied so readily to countries that have entrenched contributory systems of social insurance and comparatively low tax-free allowances. Existing welfare state architectures will affect both the political and administrative complexities that basic income will have to negotiate in different countries.

All of these models of funding also rely on income tax, but alternative taxes on consumption, land, natural resources or wealth are possible. Torry cites the fact that “the proceeds of production will continue to accrue to capital rather than to labour” as one of the reasons why a basic income is a necessity. Yet, a basic income funded by income tax, by its very nature, cannot address this disparity. It redistributes income from labour without touching capital income, explaining why advocates such as Yanis Varoufakis insist on basic income being linked to capital rather than (labour) income taxes. If the purpose of basic income is to valorise unpaid work and allow workers to drop out of the labour market or move towards a post-work economy, then income tax cannot be the sole source of funding. Here again, the choice of tax relates to a basic income package that reveals a wider ideological position. It is telling that the basic income experiments currently avoid most of these thorny issues because they do not involve the question of funding on a wider scale.

Does basic income highlight a new distributional conflict?

The previous two reasons why we find support from both left and right relate to different visions of basic income. However, it is also becoming increasingly difficult to reduce the politics of the welfare state more widely to a left-right axis. Since at least the 1950s, it has been argued that cultural or post-materialist issues influence voters and parties as much as distributional issues (Inglehart, 1977), and it has become relatively common to understand politics as (at least) two-dimensional, with a libertarian-authoritarian axis as well as a left-right axis (Kitschelt, 1994). This manifests itself in questions related to law and order, immigration, the environment, the emancipation of women and national identity. These questions are perceived as distinct from economic issues that represent the left-right axis such as government intervention or redistribution.

However, the boundaries between distributional and cultural issues are becoming increasingly blurred, as distributive deservingness has become a central theme of political debate (Hausermann & Kriesi, 2015). Particularly in an era of austerity, the restriction of social security to “deserving” as opposed to “undeserving” groups such as immigrants, unemployed people or disabled people has come to the fore in welfare state politics (van Oorschot, 2000, 2006). In many countries in continental Europe, where pronounced differences in entitlement to social security based on levels of contribution are an important component of insider-outsider politics, the size of government spending again masks a more nuanced picture of unequal distribution (Palier & Thelen, 2010). So the politics of welfare entitlement, whether welfare chauvinism, deservingness, misuse or contribution, does not sit easily on a left-right axis of more or less state intervention. Beramendi et al. (2015) propose a universalist-particularist dimension that indicates corresponding attitudes and policy positions on these issues, largely mirroring the libertarian-authoritarian axis, with restrictive immigration attitudes correlating with narrow conceptions of welfare deservingness.

The obvious question then is to ask where basic income fits on this axis. In the sense that it is the antithesis of restricting social security to deserving groups or linking benefits to a history of contribution, basic income would seem to represent a fundamentally universalist policy. Libertarians on the right that advocate negative income tax are as likely as the New Left to subscribe to notions of equal treatment, understood in this sense. Green parties across Europe that often support a basic income tend to siphon off votes from social democratic parties by emphasising issues on this cultural or post-materialist axis. A leading contender for the French Socialist Party’s presidential candidacy who won the first round of voting, Benoît Hamon, has made basic income his flagship policy alongside calls to legalise cannabis and maintain an open immigration policy. In the current political climate, with Brexit, Trump and far-right gains across Europe, it appears that culture matters as much, if not more, than economics – even if culture is still related to social class. Perhaps, then, interest in basic income is an expression of this trend.

One interesting complication could be the extent to which basic income, if tied to restrictive notions of citizenship, may turn this on its head and act as an instrument of welfare chauvinism. With the rise of the Far Right, the question of entitlement – particularly in reference to immigration – may come to dominate the basic income debate if it develops beyond the recent flurry of interest. Another contentious point relates to Beramendi et al.’s (2015) assertion that the universalist-particularist axis can be applied to government spending trade-offs between social investment and more traditional consumption-based policies of social security. Understood as a passive form of income transfer, basic income would appear to be a policy of consumption, lending itself to particularism rather than investment-centred universalism. Yet, as with employment-conditional earnings subsidies such as Working Tax Credits in the UK, it may be that under the banner of activation (as basic income is understood in the Finnish experiments, for example) basic income could be conceived of as a form of social investment.

Is it too simplistic to imply that the underlying cause of political interest in basic income is competition on a universalist-particularist axis? Undoubtedly. Yet, it is also clear that essential components of basic income – such as its universality and unconditionality, as well as the fact it is a flat-rate, non-contributory benefit – relate to questions of distribution that deviate from a simple question of more or less state. At the same time, attitudes to these principles are fundamentally ideological and perhaps likely to cluster around other ‘universalist’ policy positions. All in all, it is important not to downplay the fact that, in the midst of talk about automation, economic necessity or just bureaucratic simplicity, any process that led to the implementation of basic income would require agreement on its contested features, as well as an accompanying package of cuts and taxes. This means that even if we accept that it is beyond left and right in the sense that it draws support (as well as opposition) from both, it is not beyond ideological or distributional conflict.



Atkinson, A. B. (1995). Public economics in action : the basic income/flat tax proposal. Oxford University Press.

Atkinson, A. B. (1996). The case for a participation income. Political Quarterly, 67(1), 67.

Beramendi, P., Hausermann, S., Kitschelt, H., & Kriesi, H., Eds. (2015). The Politics of Advanced Capitalism. Cambridge University Press.

Hausermann, S., & Kriesi, H. (2015). What Do Voters Want? Dimensions and Configurations in Individual-Level Preferences and Party Choice. In P. Beramendi, S. Hausermann, H. Kitschelt, & H. Kriesi (Eds.), The Politics of Advanced Capitalism (pp. 202–230). Cambridge University Press.

Inglehart, R. (1977). The silent revolution : changing values and political styles among Western publics. Princeton; Guildford: Princeton University Press.

Kitschelt, H. (1994). The transformation of European social democracy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Palier, B., & Thelen, K. (2010). Institutionalizing Dualism: Complementarities and Change in France and Germany. Politics & Society, 38(1), 119–148.

Parker, H. (1989). Instead of the dole : an enquiry into integration of the tax and benefit systems. London; New York: Routledge.

Van Oorschot, W. (2000). Who should get what, and why? On deservingness criteria and the conditionality of. Policy & Politics, 28(1), 33–48.

Van Oorschot, W. (2006). Making the difference in social Europe: deservingness perceptions among citizens of European welfare states. Journal of European Social Policy, 16(1), 23–42.

Van Parijs, P. (2004). Basic Income: A Simple and Powerful Idea for the Twenty-First Century. Politics & Society, 32(1), 7–39.


From Foucault to Valls: experiments with basic income in France

📥  universal income

Dr Susan Milner is Reader in European Politics at the University of Bath.

In line with changes discussed in the British context, it is startling to observe how much has shifted in French policy debates since the last presidential and legislative elections in 2012. For over two decades now, as in other OECD countries, the twin discourses of welfare dependency and ‘making work pay’ have dominated public debates. In the US presidential elections, the rhetoric of ‘decent jobs for decent pay’ was powerfully articulated across the political spectrum. It has not (yet?) made its way across the Atlantic. Instead, amidst the tumult of primaries as the political parties gear up for next year’s executive elections, the idea of a universal basic income has been making its way across the political landscape in France.



The idea has a long pedigree in France where it is associated with radical thinkers such as Michel Foucault who argued that an unconditional basic income would free citizens from the intrusion of state power and the stigmatisation of means testing and conditionality. Philosopher André Gorz also advocated a ‘revenue of autonomy’ back in 1983, first linking it to the need for recipients to engage in work as a precondition for active citizenship, then later - in 2002 - abandoning this link to employment in the face of mass unemployment, and as a reaction against the spread of ‘workfare’ conditionality. Gorz’s ‘farewell to the proletariat’ (physically productive paid work as opposed to brain work) was in line with this new left utopia, and it chimes with the current mood of political debates which have been sparked by concerns and hopes about the consequences for human employment of developments in artificial intelligence.

Equally startling is the observation that the idea has gathered new converts across the political spectrum. The ruling French Socialist Party has been relatively slow to welcome it, and the mainstream right has, up until now, been mostly hostile. The conversion of key politicians on both wings has reopened debates. In the Socialist Party, universal basic income has gathered support recently from would-be leaders on both the left and right wings. On the centre-right, François Fillon - its most notable proponent - made a surprise breakthrough in the first round of the primaries on Sunday.

However, as Luke Martinelli pointed out in his IPR blog, behind the apparent consensus lie some fundamental differences which need to be acknowledged and explored if the debate is to develop meaningfully. A report by the Fondation Jean Jaurès, a think tank with close ties to the ruling French Socialist Party, identified at least three approaches to universal incomes, with a fundamental divide between libertarian-right and ecologist-left versions based on whether a universal income should be residual subsistence-level or generous enough to allow individuals to live decently without any need for paid work.

Most proponents among the contenders on the centre-right propose pegging the rate at €450 per month, which is far from the conditions of autonomy espoused by Gorz or Foucault. Some of the (less prominent) politicians in the Les Républicains party have suggested a rate almost double that, at €800 per month, which is the rate around which support in the Socialist Party seems to be gathering. However, among the more likely winners of the forthcoming primary on the right, support for basic income has been at best lukewarm - and has been based on the assumption of rates lower than current benefit levels. Mr Fillon, tagged as an economic liberal and social conservative, espouses a low-level basic income as part of a general push to lower welfare spending.

A recent Senate report modelled three levels: €500 per month (the level of the current minimum income, revenu de solidarité active (RSA)), which could potentially be topped up by existing state pensions but no other benefits; €750 (the absolute poverty threshold); and €1000. Whilst the first two would save money for the state, the third would require further funding to the tune of €153 billion. The rate of €750 per month, with an additional €250 for pensioners and €250 per child to families, is the most widely advocated option - the ‘most realistic utopia’ for the authors of the Fondation Jean Jaurès report.

This specific difference concerning income levels raises a wider question about the motives for adopting a basic income. Several politicians on the French right have been explicit in advocating its adoption as a way of saving money for the state by reducing benefit levels. The result would almost certainly be a rise in levels of poverty risk, which France has so far been relatively successful in containing, at 12.1% of the total population in 2014 compared to 16% in the UK.

Existing social transfers significantly attenuate poverty in France: before social transfers the at-risk-of-poverty rate is around 22%. However this does not mean that it is efficient: as well as the stigmatising effect, the social safety net has several large gaps, particularly around young people (who are not eligible for the RSA and who have a poverty rate of 18%) and single people, as the transfers are skewed towards families with children. The RSA is a particularly unloved benefit, as it falls short of a universal basic income and, with its plethora of conditionality rules, has become complex to administer and to claim, with little impact on employability.

A final area of uncertainty, and therefore of political debate, concerns the impact of universal income on low-paid work. The late sociologist Robert Castel, a leading scholar of social exclusion who was one of the first to theorise the ‘precariate’, excoriated the RSA for providing insufficient resources to the poor whilst at the same time encouraging low-paid, low-quality jobs. Poverty concerns, he argued, have to be raised in the context of a wider discussion about the quality of work. In the current French political debates, the universal income proposals assume that they will be widely topped up with low-paid work. Moreover, contradictions with the post-work utopia are simply sidestepped.

Almost entirely absent from the current debates is any sense of the material needs of individuals claiming universal benefits, apart from low-income pensioners. There is no discussion of how universal benefit would affect families, or people with physical or mental disabilities, who may be cumulatively disadvantaged if a universal benefit is used to shrink the state in terms of its services as well as its cash transfers. There is no modelling of how benefits interact with consumption needs, particularly housing. Unless these fundamental questions are posed and answered, the current debates could end up instrumentalising the concept of a universal basic income without resolving the problems which sparked them in the first place.

To help answer some of these questions, the new interest in universal incomes has at least had the effect of stimulating investment in local experiments. In the Gironde department, a universal income will be administered by amalgamating existing benefits for the poorest. This French experiment will be much closer to a universal citizens’ income model than the Finnish and Dutch initiatives which will take place at the same time, and which are explicitly aimed at integrating recipients into the labour market. It also has the novel addition of a citizens’ panel which will form part of the evaluation process. The Gironde experiment has already caught the attention of the Prime Minister Manuel Valls and served to re-ignite the interest of presidential hopefuls. It will yield useful results for ongoing debates on a universal basic income.



Comparing Basic Income Experiments: Lessons and Challenges

📥  Economy, living wage, research, universal income

Dr Jurgen De Wispelaere is a Policy Fellow at the IPR, as well as Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Tampere. As part of the latter role, he plays a part in the Kela-led research team preparing the upcoming national basic income experiment in Finland.

Experimenting with basic income: a unique situation

In Europe we are faced with a unique situation: in 2015/2016 not one but two countries started down the road of piloting a basic income experiment. There are important similarities between the experiments planned in Finland and the Netherlands. All going well, both countries hope to get started in early 2017 and run the experiment for two years - and in both cases, for a variety of reasons, the plan is to pilot an experiment limited to social assistance recipients. In short, Finland and the Netherlands will be simultaneously conducting an experiment on a broadly similar target population.



There are of course also important differences. First and foremost, the experimental design in both countries is very different. For example, Finland will pilot a national randomised controlled trial with a single basic income model, while in the Netherlands different municipalities will experiment with a variety of models. There are also very interesting differences in terms of the political process associated with the basic income experiments: where Finland’s experiment was initiated by the Finnish government and is therefore highly centralised, the Dutch experiments were pushed onto the policy agenda by local NGOs or municipal decision-makers against considerable resistance from the central government. Finally, Finland and the Netherlands are very different types of welfare states, and we can expect variation in welfare institutions and processes to affect both the political decision-making process and the actual design of the proposed experiments.

Why compare?

This combination of two experiments simultaneously taking place in countries that differ in important respects is a unique situation that opens up the possibility of engaging in serious comparative research. Why compare? There are three reasons why both projects should engage in close collaboration and why we should adopt a comparative approach to studying what happens in Finland and the Netherlands.

The first reason is practical. Piloting a basic income scheme is a complex endeavour and those involved in designing and implementing the experiment run into a lot of problems along the way. There is much to learn from experiments carried out in the past in the US and Canada as well as, more recently, Namibia and India. But the lessons to be learned from those experiments are limited by the fact that they took place several decades ago — the world has moved on quite a bit since the 1970s — or that they operated in an environment that is very different from that of an advanced welfare state inside the EU. For this reason it makes sense that the experiments about to take off in Finland and the Netherlands may be able to help each other more than any of those that took place before. Exchanging information about hurdles encountered, as well as proposed solutions, may offer key guidance that could benefit both experiments.

A second reason for thinking comparatively relates to building up cumulative knowledge about basic income design, implementation and effects. Despite a massive increase in media and policy attention, we actually don’t know that much about basic income. Many arguments doing the rounds run the gamut from “reasonable expectation” (when grounded in good theory or analogous reasoning from other policy areas) to wild speculation (in other cases). There is a simple reason for that: basic income has not been implemented in a way that allows for robust insights.

The recent interest in pilots and experiments offers a great opportunity to (partly) rectify this problem, provided we adopt an approach that allows for systematically comparing design, implementation and results, as well as the underlying policy process. There is little to be gained from experiments that make it impossible to compare results in any meaningful way. Streamlining experimental design as much as possible to facilitate valid comparisons during and after the pilot — e.g., by standardising baseline surveys, indicators and measurement instruments where possible — is of immense importance in terms of furthering our global knowledge about basic income policy. Although experiments will always have important variation built into them, given the specific context in which they operate, when carefully coordinated they will tell us how to interpret design differences and their effects on the outcomes. And this, in turn, helps us understand which outcomes are unique to a specific experimental setting, and which can be generalised across and reflect common results of instituting a basic income.

A third important reason pertains to the politics of basic income pilot experiments. The dramatic increase in media and policy attention in the span of a mere three years has taken everyone — advocates and critics alike — by surprise. We know next to nothing about the factors that explain why basic income has suddenly become politique du jour amongst the political elites (Sure, we all have out little pet theories, but without systematic analysis and evidence, that is exactly all they are!). Equally, if not more importantly, we are only beginning to understand the political drivers of basic income policy development more generally. Against this uncertain background, the experiments play a crucial role in uncovering in a systematic manner the policy and political processes that have brought us to where we are now. Understanding these underlying processes, of course, is also critically important in thinking about where to go next, and how to make use of basic income experiments and their results in due course to move policy development along.

Having experiments taking place in two countries as diverse as Finland and the Netherlands offers a unique opportunity to study the political forces at play — an opportunity not to be wasted. Two intriguing aspects of these jurisdictions merit particularly careful examination. First, comparing the top-down approach adopted in Finland with the bottom-up approach that characterises the Dutch context allows us to examine closely the complicated political process by which an idea moves onto the policy agenda and — hopefully — soon enters the implementation phase. Real world policy development of the basic income proposal will have to make sense of the multi-level nature of its design and implementation. Second, there are important lessons to be learned in terms of framing the basic income debate: where Finland has embraced the experiment as a natural continuation of several decades of intense and complicated debate about basic income, in the Netherlands the experiments proceed while strategically avoiding any connotation with the basic income idea. Understanding the framing process will help political strategy in overcoming public and political resistance of the basic income idea.

Challenges to adopting a comparative approach

There are challenges to adopting a comparative approach to basic income experimentation. Some of the challenges are related to each experiment as an individual — e.g., maintaining the political momentum to carry out the experiment in a manner that produces reliable results — while others pertain to the demands of coordination between experimental teams. Examples of the latter include the need to adapt the research design and experimental setting to maximise comparability, the sharing of information and regular communication across jurisdictions — keeping in mind that each project is highly politicised! — and the building of a cross-country collaborative research network dedicated to supporting and evaluating ongoing and future basic income experiments. There is much work to be done, but the opportunity is there for grabbing.


This piece draws on information from a workshop entitled “Experimenting with Basic Income: Finland and Netherlands”, which was hosted by Kela with the aim of exchanging views between researchers involved in the planning of the Finnish basic income experiment and researchers from the Netherlands currently preparing the experiments planned for early 2017 in Utrecht, Wageningen, Tilburg and Groningen.

The presentations given at the workshop were recorded and can be viewed here. This piece has also been published on the Kela website.


Citizen's Income: the long history of an inevitable idea

📥  Economy, Finland, future, living wage, policymaking, political parties, research, Switzerland, universal income, Welfare

Dr Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizen's Income Trust and a prolific author on the subject of Citizen's Income.

On Tuesday 11 October the Institute for Policy Research hosted a seminar on the desirability and feasibility of a Citizen’s or Basic Income: an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. An account of the seminar is available on the IPR’s website. I shall not here repeat what was said at that seminar: instead, I shall begin with a different seminar.



Following the publication of its report on Citizen’s Income, the Royal Society of Arts hosted a seminar on the history and prospects of the Citizen’s Income debate. In his presentation Karl Widerquist, Co-chair of BIEN, the Citizen’s Income international umbrella group, recounted the history of the idea from the 18th Century onwards, and made suggestions as to the different ways in which the debate might now develop.

The subsequent discussion recognised that the more intense debate of the past two or three years has a variety of causes: think tank engagement with the issue, represented by the RSA’s and Compass’s reports, and interest at the Adam Smith Institute; successful pilot projects in Namibia and India; planned pilot projects in Finland and Holland; a referendum in Switzerland; political party interest in the UK (with the Green Party and the Scottish National Party supporting the idea, and Labour interested) and in other countries too; new trade union interest; and perhaps even the Citizen’s Income Trust’s 30 years of research and publications.

The current debate already has its own history, constituted by three phases: discussion of whether giving everyone a Citizen’s Income would be desirable, interest in whether it would be feasible, and discussion of which would be the best way to implement the policy. There are no firm boundaries between these three phases (if a Citizen’s Income could not be implemented, for example, then it would not be feasible – and if it wasn’t felt to be desirable then it wouldn’t be feasible either), and each new phase has been in addition to a previous phase or phases, rather than being a replacement – but the progression is significant because it is evidence for the increasingly serious nature of the current debate. The think tank reports listed above belong to the ‘feasibility’ phase, as does my own recent Institute for Social and Economic Research Euromod working paper and recent book. A significant contribution to the new focus on implementation will be an Institute for Chartered Accountants consultation on the subject in November.

Where will the debate go now?

Luke Martinelli’s recent Institute for Policy Research blog discusses the diversity of the current debate in terms of, firstly, the diverse political ideologies of some of the players, and secondly the diversity of Citizen’s Income schemes discussed. A Citizen’s or Basic Income is always the same thing. It is always an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. But there are of course a wide diversity of different schemes, with each scheme specifying the levels of Citizen’s Income for different age groups, and the changes that will be made to the existing tax and benefits systems when the Citizen’s Income is implemented. Compass called a scheme that retains means-tested benefits a ‘modified’ scheme. It is not. The Citizen’s Income is a genuine Citizen’s Income, so the scheme is a genuine Citizen’s Income scheme.

There is a history to this diversity. As with the three phases of the current debate, so the longer-term debate has evolved by addition rather than by replacement. Thomas Paine’s suggestion, that those who no longer have access to expropriated commons should be paid compensation, has been a continuing theme, represented today by Guy Standing’s campaigning scholarship. Today’s most high-profile representative of the libertarian argument for a Citizen’s Income is Philippe Van Parijs, and Charles Murray represents well the extreme version of this tendency, which would like to scrap all other welfare provision on the implementation of a Citizen’s Income. But this is to suggest – as Martinelli’s blog post does – that arguments for Citizen’s Income, and accompanying preferred Citizen’s Income schemes, can be located in clear ideological categories. I suspect that this is less and less the case. There are no longer clear categories, and there are no reliable spectra on which positions can be located. Our age is increasingly one of radical diversity. My first book on Citizen’s Income, Money for Everyone, discussed political feasibility in terms of identifiable political ideologies. The following book, 101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income, simply offers 101 different reasons, recognising that for each individual a particular bundle of reasons might be significant. A handful of the reasons offered are framed in terms of political ideologies, because for many people those are still salient – but most of the reasons are simply listed in such broad categories as ‘economy’, ‘society’, ‘administration’, etc. My most recent book, Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian Social Policy, recognises that we are a community of communities, and that particular communities might have their own distinctive reasons for supporting or rejecting Citizen’s Income. As the Citizen’s Income debate becomes increasingly mainstream, we shall find the same tendency that we find with other current issues: that they will become political footballs – that is, they will be pushed around by political considerations, rather than in relation to their own characteristics. The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has for a long time recognised that we shall one day need a Citizen’s Income, and that the idea needs to be carefully studied by government. He spoke at the Citizen’s Income Trust’s conference in 2014, invited the Trust to organise one of his People’s Parliament events, and since becoming Shadow Chancellor has reiterated his interest. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, has also been clear about his support. During the recent Labour Party leadership campaign, Corbyn’s opponent Owen Smith stated his view that Citizen’s Income wasn’t credible. Whether he had read any of the research I don’t know – but it certainly appeared that the motive for his objection was that his opponent had supported it. It is regrettable when positions are taken for reasons proceeding from a personal political career, or for factional advantage, rather than on the basis of evidenced and reasoned argument – but incidents such as this are useful because they signal the fact that an idea is understood, and that it is understood to be significant. What is then required is a sustained emphasis on the idea’s feasibility.

The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income understands feasibility as multifaceted, and recognises that specifically political feasibility is just one aspect of feasibility. In order to be implemented, a Citizen’s Income scheme would need to pass two kinds of financial feasibility test, with regard to both the feasibility of paying for it and the need to avoid imposing losses on low-income households at the point of implementation; it would need to pass psychological, behavioural, and administrative feasibility tests; and it would need to be able to negotiate the complex policy process from idea to implementation. The book concludes that there are Citizen’s Income schemes that could achieve all of that. A conclusion that might have been more explicit is that conformity of the scheme to a political ideology or ideologies might be fairly unimportant. A conclusion that is drawn matches one that Martinelli draws: that deeply embedded convictions, relating to reciprocity, deservedness, and so on, will need to be recognised at the implementation stage, because only those implementation methods that could achieve public approval can be regarded as feasible. The popularity of both the NHS and Child Benefit suggest that unconditional benefits fit the British psyche just as much as ideas of reciprocity and deservedness do; so as long as age groups generally felt to be ‘deserving’ are the first to receive Citizen’s Incomes, psychological feasibility should not be too difficult to achieve. Governments can move ahead of public opinion if they are moving in the same direction – recent examples are the ban on smoking in workplaces and public places, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage – and legislation can sometimes shape public opinion (as equalities legislation has done). This suggests that any government that saw good reason for implementing a Citizen’s Income scheme would be able to do so, as long as it started with age groups generally believed to be deserving – that is, children, retired people, the pre-retired, and the 16+ age group.

Martinelli suggests that the Citizen’s Income debate will exhibit a variety of different Citizen’s Income schemes, with each kind relating to a different set of political convictions. I’m not so sure. It is a reasonable assumption that for the foreseeable future any initial Citizen’s Income scheme in a developed country will need to be revenue neutral, and possibly strictly revenue neutral (in the sense that only tax allowances related to earnings would be reduced to help to pay for the Citizen’s Income). Microsimulation research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research has shown that a revenue-neutral Citizen’s Income scheme can only avoid imposing unacceptable losses on low-income households if current means-tested benefits are left in place and are recalculated to take account of each household’s Citizen’s Income and changes in net earnings. Recently updated figures show that a working-age adult Citizen’s Income of £60 per week could be paid for on this basis. This is not large, but neither is it insignificant. Compass’s recent report takes a similar approach. The RSA report does not – but neither has it tested its proposed scheme for low-income household losses at the point of implementation. We look forward to the results of current IPR microsimulation research. We are now more aware than before that although it is possible to construct a wide variety of Citizen’s Income schemes in theory, in practice only a narrow range of that diversity could ever be financially feasible in both senses of that term. If the debate about Citizen’s Income remains mainstream, and if it becomes increasingly so, then any infeasible scheme will be put under considerable pressure (as the Green Party’s proposed scheme was before the 2015 General Election) – and the result will be convergence on a narrow range of revenue-neutral schemes that would not impose losses on low-income households at the point of implementation.

The increasingly flexible and diverse nature of the employment market, family structures, and society and the economy generally, and the way in which the proceeds of production will continue to accrue to capital rather than to labour, mean that sooner or later we shall need a Citizen’s Income – and that we shall need to find some means of paying for it. But that could still be a very long process. Maybe by this time next year everybody will have lost interest, and the idea will have to await another upsurge in interest in a generation’s time; or maybe there will be both developing and developed countries taking the first steps towards implementation. More likely, we shall experience a situation somewhere between those two. Whatever the debate is like next year, it will have been important for high-quality research to have facilitated it. For this reason it is a pleasure to see the Institute for Policy Research contributing to the research that we shall need, and to the widespread debate that is now required.

This blog post develops on themes discussed by Dr Torry in a recent IPR Seminar. You can view the seminar and slides in full on our online lectures page, or listen to the podcast on our Soundcloud playlist.

Exposing a fragile coalition: The state of the basic income debate

📥  Economy, employment, living wage, political parties, universal income

Dr Luke Martinelli is Research Associate on the IPR's universal basic income project.

Is it time to move beyond the polarised views that characterise the basic income debate? Universal basic income (UBI) may be an attractive solution to a host of policy problems – but advocates must recognise that moving from abstract concept to reality will involve significant trade-offs and political barriers.


Gaining traction, growing support

In recent weeks, there have been a number of developments which appear to demonstrate the movement of UBI towards the political mainstream: in the UK, the influential Trades Union Congress (TUC) has endorsed social security reform that embodies the principles of basic income; in Canada, the Government is moving forward with concrete plans for a basic income pilot, adding to those upcoming in Finland and the Netherlands; the French region of Aquitaine is consulting on the idea; and in Germany, the single issue party Bündnis Grundeinkommen (Basic Income League) has just been established. These trends seem to suggest that UBI is gaining traction that will lead inexorably to widespread implementation.

After all, UBI is not just a good idea; it is an increasingly good idea in a world in which the nature of work, family and society is rapidly changing.  Automation of production processes, both in manufacturing and, increasingly, services; large and growing wage gaps between ‘lousy’ and ‘lovely’ jobs (Goos and Manning, 2007); the growth of zero-hour and temporary contractual arrangements; and long-term unemployment among disadvantaged groups are all problems which urgently need addressing. Nuclear families have given way to the emergence of complex and unstable family structures, and the ‘new social risks’ of lone parenthood and gaps in the provision of care for children and the elderly threaten vulnerable sectors of society.

All of these factors are feeding into the widespread failure of existing social security systems to achieve equitable and efficient settlements for growing numbers of people – exactly what UBI claims to be able to provide.

Yet despite (or perhaps because of) intensified interest in basic income, the debate has become more polarised than ever. It is an elegant balance of justice and liberty; it is the worst of all possible worlds. It is the saviour of the welfare state; it will destroy it. It can be implemented tomorrow; it is a vague and distant utopia.

All things to all people

When considering these polarised views on basic income, it is worth noting that UBI is best considered as a family of proposals, rather than a specific policy per se.

The core characteristics of UBI as an idea are that payments should cover the entire population, and eligibility cannot be conditional on income, work history, or behavioural requirements. Beyond this, there is a great deal of variation between plans in terms of a number of important aspects  – including, crucially, the level at which payments should be made, and how the basic income fits into the wider constellation of welfare and tax policies.

These design features vary in relation to the precise goals that basic income is intended to achieve, which themselves are contested. Although it can be seen as a prosaic way to simplify a complex welfare system, alleviating administrative costs and bureaucratic intrusion while reducing marginal tax rates – and thus eliminating the poverty and unemployment traps that pervade means-tested systems – it has also been touted as having the potential to fundamentally alter how we think about ‘work’. Releasing individuals from the compulsion to enter paid employment – and the exploitation and domination this entails – in order to survive, and liberating them to pursue a variety of socially valuable and creative activities, UBI has been mooted in radical terms as “a capitalist road to communism” (Van Der Veen and Van Parijs, 1986).

Multi-partisan support

The protean nature of basic income helps to ensure that the concept appeals across traditional party lines. One of the striking things about this idea is the wealth of favourable theoretical arguments which appeal across the political spectrum, leading to the popular description of UBI as 'not right or left, but forward'. In isolation, these arguments apply to other ways of organising social security – but few if any such systems so effectively marry the priorities of the social democratic left (equality, solidarity and redistribution) with those of the libertarian right (small government, freedom and efficiency). By both left- and right-wing proponents, UBI is viewed as the saviour of a broken welfare system which is stigmatising and intrusive yet unfit for purpose.

For basic income advocates on the left, the focus is on the failure of the system to provide security for all in an adequate and dignified fashion, as socio-economic conditions have made the Beveridgean system increasingly untenable. Gone are the days – if they ever existed – when male breadwinners provided for their families with stable, well-paid jobs. The Trente Glorieuses, that period of yet unmatched growth and prosperity following WWII, gave way to deindustrialisation, structural unemployment, rising wage inequality, and the increasing prevalence of precarious employment.

For the right, the welfare system is seen as the cause of dependency and societal breakdown, as the complex array of means-tested benefits reduces work incentives and discourages family formation. The bloated government bureaucracy which administers the intrusive work tests and financial conditions creates higher taxes, which act as a drag on the efficiency of the economy as a whole.

Basic income, perhaps miraculously, seeks to balance these competing goals and priorities. But does this congregation of political views mean that it is universally and normatively desirable? Clearly not.

Cross-party opposition

There is an equivalent (and possibly more significant) meeting of minds across the political spectrum that finds basic income a deeply discomfiting notion. Social democrats believe that welfare should be generously available for all, and those on the right that it should be a residual safety net – but both agree that the right to an income comes with a responsibility to work (however this responsibility is actualised). Notwithstanding the claims of political philosophers such as Philippe Van Parijs that “even surfers should be fed”, Bowles and Gintis (2000) demonstrate that people “support the welfare state because it conforms to deeply-held norms of reciprocity and conditional obligations to others”. Of course, this goes beyond the simplistic equality of contributions and receipts – but the belief that everyone has an obligation to contribute to society if they can, and that only those unable to work through incapacity, involuntary unemployment or caring responsibilities are deserving of state support, provides a philosophical foil to the arguments of basic income advocates (Anderson, 1999). Bay and Pedersen (2006) show that support for universal welfare drops when respondents consider the possibility of foreign immigration. Data on attitudes to welfare, which have hardened in recent years, appear to uphold these insights – as analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey by Eleanor Taylor and IPR Director Professor Nick Pearce serves to demonstrate.

For progressive opponents of UBI, welfare should be restricted to those most in need, since the wealthy do not need it; if you are going to spend more on welfare, why not make payments more generous for the poor? Thus, basic income is likely to be seen as ineffectual by the progressive left, as demonstrated by reactions to Compass’ UBI proposals stating that “a powerful new tax engine will pull along a tiny cart”, and that feasible UBI schemes are “not generous enough to achieve the aim of replacing wages in an increasingly automated world; or they are not funded properly; or both”. The concept of uniform benefits also appears to conflict with the principle that levels of support should correspond to the needs of claimants – which are complex and varied, and therefore might be seen to justify an equally complex range of benefits.

At the same time, conservative opponents argue that UBI would be prohibitively expensive, require huge tax rises, and significantly damage work incentives. Although the unconditional nature of UBI leads to lower marginal effective tax rates (as the benefit is not withdrawn as income rises), if payments were pitched at subsistence level or higher, there would be a significant negative labour market response as individuals opt for more leisure.

Thus, while basic income has supporters across the political landscape, it also has detractors – and the large family of basic income proposals provides a wide target at which to direct criticism.

A fragile coalition

The multifaceted nature of basic income enables detractors to criticise the least desirable type of basic income (from their particular perspective). Thus, basic income’s association with ‘undesirable’ political views permits left-wing opponents of basic income to attack UBI as an alternative to decent public services and a project to dismantle the welfare state, while simultaneously allowing right-wingers to criticise it for inflating the role of government in welfare provision and dampening incentives for self-provision.

Exacerbating the political challenge of UBI is what De Wispelaere (2015) calls the “problem of persistent political division” among supporters. While agreed on the general principle, UBI advocates on each side of the political divide have different ideas about the key parameters. When UBI is operationalised in a specific scheme, divisions appear; as De Wispelaere observes, a residual scheme such as that proposed by Murray (2006) is “entirely unacceptable to anyone supporting basic income on progressive grounds”. At the same time, libertarian UBI advocates would only support basic income schemes that sought to replace the entire welfare system. Thus, support from the ‘opposite’ political side may taint the concept of basic income by association: progressives cannot get behind a policy supported by right-wingers, and vice versa.

Although steps to realise basic income show signs of progress, therefore, this ultimately hinges on the extent to which meaningful coalitions of interests can be built and sustained around concrete proposals. This prospect is a lot more distant than appears at first glance; the apparent unity of the basic income movement masks a multitude of deeply divided actors, and a highly fragile coalition.

To end on a more positive note, these political difficulties are not necessarily intractable – but it may be that advocates have to sacrifice their broad coalition in favour of congregation around specific schemes. This would give lie to the idea that basic income is ‘all things to all people’, but it might garner new and more enthusiastic supporters as well.



Anderson, Elizabeth S. (1999). "What Is the Point of Equality?" Ethics, 109(2): 287-337.

Bay, Ann-Helén, and Axel West Pedersen. "The limits of social solidarity basic income, immigration and the legitimacy of the universal welfare state." Acta Sociologica 49(4): 419-436.

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis (2000). "Reciprocity, self-interest, and the welfare state." Nordic Journal of Political Economy, 26(1): 33-53.

De Wispelaere, Jurgen (2015). "The struggle for strategy: On the politics of the basic income proposal." Politics (2015): 1467-9256.

Goos, Maarten, and Alan Manning (2007). "Lousy and lovely jobs: The rising polarization of work in Britain." The review of economics and statistics, 89(1): 118-133.

Murray, Charles. (2006). In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press.

Van Der Veen, Robert J. and Philippe Van Parijs (1986). "A capitalist road to communism." Theory and Society, 15(5): 635-655.

Van Parijs, Philippe (1991). "Why surfers should be fed. The liberal case for an unconditional basic income." Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20: 101-131.

No love on the dole

📥  universal income, Welfare


Dr Rita Griffiths is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR). Her PhD focussed on the relationship between family structure and the UK means-tested social security system.

How would you feel if, by living with your partner, you lost your financial independence and were obliged to ask him (or her) for money? What if you had children but your partner was not your children’s father? This was the situation facing Nina, a 46 year old lone parent with three children I interviewed in 2013 as part of a qualitative study of partnering behaviour among 51 low-income mothers living in the North West of England. Employed part-time as a family liaison worker, Nina faced the unpalatable prospect of losing her Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit if she started to cohabit with her new partner. In her circumstances, what would be the responsible thing to do – to throw caution to the wind by moving in together, hoping your partner would financially support you and your children? Or would you opt instead to live separately, allowing you to retain your financial independence? Like many of the low-income mothers in my research, Nina fashioned a compromise which did not entail the loss of income and control of the household finances; she delayed officially declaring her partner was living with her until she was working full-time and earning above the threshold for state financial support. Nina was not alone in challenging the indiscriminate way in which welfare rules force mothers like her into financial dependency. “[My new partner] hadn’t played a part in the children’s lives up to that time … so I thought it was unfair that we would be considered to be cohabiting in a way that meant he was responsible for providing for me and the children … That’s not to diminish [his] relationship with [them]… [but] I don’t consider him their father and nor does he, so why should he be responsible for them financially?”



But what if, as the research also found, this ‘living apart together’ arrangement was deemed by the authorities to be ‘marriage-like,’ and you were investigated for ‘failing to disclose a partner’? Fear of being criminally prosecuted forced Lorena’s hand. A 38 year old divorcee with an eight year old child, when Lorena’s partner began staying over more frequently she faced two equally unenviable alternatives - whether to continue claiming as a lone parent and risk being prosecuted for benefit fraud, or ending her claim and asking her new partner to financially support her. “I felt that they’re putting me in a position now where I have to be dependent on someone who really was not supporting me financially … but ... we’re not married, he was not responsible for me or [my child] … How can I just say, ‘actually ... can you give me money?’ ... It would destroy, not build a relationship … How badly as a woman you would feel … It’s a little bit like prostitution isn’t it?” Caught between the rock of potential criminal prosecution and the hard place of enforced financial dependency, her dilemma apparently resolved when she became pregnant and went on to marry her partner. However, having given up her job to care for her new baby, she remained deeply ambivalent about being financially dependent on her new husband, a situation made worse through having also lost entitlement to Child Benefit,[1] her only independent source of income.

There was to be no happy ever after for others in my research. Imperfect understanding of welfare rules led many mothers in this study to believe that they would remain legitimate claimants if their partner stayed over no more than three consecutive nights a week. But as Hattie found to her cost, there is no such rule. A lone mother with a four year old child, though her partner was stationed abroad and provided no financial support, she was found guilty of failing to disclose a partner, electronically tagged and required to repay £20,000, a monumental sum she was struggling to chip away at a little at a time from her benefits.

Whether ‘lifestyle choice’ or ‘Hobson’s choice,’ this invidious set of alternatives requiring either dependency on a partner or dependency on the state is often the context in which low-income couples reliant on benefits or tax credits are obliged to conduct their intimate relationships and make decisions about partnering, family formation and living arrangements. The dilemma arises because of two poorly understood aspects of the UK welfare system - the ‘Living Together as a Married Couple’ (LTAMC) rule and closely aligned system of family-based means testing. Using an interpretation of cohabitation as ‘marriage-like,’ outdated notions of breadwinning and financial support obligations in couples and the (often fallacious) assumption that couples who live together pool and equitably distribute their income, under these rules, couples who share the same household have no independent right to access state financial support; if eligible for help, they must claim benefits or tax credits jointly. But here’s the rub – only one person is eligible to claim. Although this can be either member of the couple, women’s typically lower earning potential and greater responsibility for childcare, together with stringent job search conditions attached to claiming unemployment benefits, mean that in couples with dependent children, the woman is rarely the claimant. And although couples can currently opt to pay certain benefits to the non-claiming partner,[2] there is no legal obligation on the person in receipt of the benefits or tax credits to transfer any part of the payment to his or her partner. Furthermore, as my research showed, inequalities of power and financial control within couples mean than, even if payments were made into a joint account, there was no guarantee that both individuals had independent or equal access to the money.

More troubling than this for the mothers in my research was the fact that entitlement for benefits and tax credits is assessed against the combined income and earnings of the couple. When a low-income mother starts to cohabit (or marries), she therefore potentially loses not only an important source of income, but if she has no or very low earnings, she risks losing her financial independence altogether. In this context, who was earning, who was entitled to claim benefits and tax credits, who received payment, how household income was accessed and shared between the members of a couple and on what and whom the money was spent, came sharply into focus. The focus was particularly keen for cohabiting couples because, unlike spouses, cohabitees are under no legal obligation to financially support one another. For lone mothers the focus was keener still, particularly if her partner was not the biological father of her child or children.

A favoured trope of the tabloids and a perennial target of welfare reform, the single mother incentivised to maximise her benefit and housing entitlement by concealing the presence of a partner or ‘pretending to separate’ is a powerful and persistent narrative. By unpicking the complexities of the regulatory and administrative aspects of the welfare system, my research found that, contrary to popular discourse, it was the extent to which mothers were able to exercise financial autonomy in different partnership and household configurations that was most influential in decisions affecting family structure and living arrangements. Whereas the aspects of welfare which facilitated a mother’s access to an independent income served mainly to strengthen couple relationships and encourage family formation, those which enforced financial dependence on a partner were apt to de-stabilise relationships and discourage cohabitation. Out of step with modern-day relationship norms and liable to reinforce gender inequality inside the household, by obliging the members of a couple to be financially dependent on each other, joint means testing and the LTAMC rule therefore acted as a significant deterrent to family formation and repartnering.

The findings give lie to simplistic and stigmatising discourses suggesting that some women ‘choose’ to become lone mothers or ‘pretend’ to separate in order to become eligible for higher levels of state financial support. Against the backdrop of a welfare system which removes an individual’s independent right to claim if they live with a partner, resisting dependency by retaining a regular and reliable source of income over which they had a meaningful degree of control was a more compelling driver of mothers’ behaviour than financial gain. Ceding responsibility for safeguarding the family’s financial well-being to a new or precariously employed partner was seen as a particularly risky arrangement. Even when her partner was the biological father of her child, the creation of a financially and emotionally stable household for raising children was a mother’s primary concern - better to withstand the challenges of lone parenthood than become financially dependent on an unreliable male ‘breadwinner’ or on a new or unproven partner.

Such unintended outcomes of welfare rules have important implications for welfare reform. Universal Credit (UC) which is being rolled out nationally in phases, amalgamates six means-tested benefits into a single, monthly payment. The LTAMC rule and a similar system of family-based means testing continue to underpin UC, but in a significant departure from legacy benefits, the monthly UC award will be made in the form of one lump sum per couple transferred into an individual or joint bank account. Couples can choose into which bank account the money will be paid, but they can no longer opt to have the payment split between the partners. Findings from this research suggest that both for lone parents and for married and cohabiting couples struggling to stay together under conditions of economic austerity and reducing welfare payments, switching to a single, monthly payment regime could create an added burden of risk in terms of family formation and relationship stability.

In showing that the aspects of welfare which institutionalise economic dependency in couples can undermine relationship stability and deter cohabitation, the findings from this research strengthen arguments in favour of reforming the social security system in ways which increase the financial independence of women and men living in couple households. Options for achieving this are many and varied. Disaggregation - operating the welfare system according to the same principles of equal and independent treatment as the income tax system - would cancel out many of the disincentive effects to family formation and repartnering highlighted in this research, but is expensive. A fiscally neutral but more modest alternative would be to equally divide or allow couples to split the payment of UC. Increasing the earnings disregard for second earners in couples would be less costly but fails to address the underlying assumption of financial dependency in couples. At the other end of the spectrum is Universal Basic Income (UBI). The advantage of UBI over simply individualising welfare eligibility or entitlement is the wholesale elimination of means testing and work conditionality, thereby removing all incentive and disincentive effects to partnership formation and dissolution, as well as to paid employment by either partner in a couple. However, in the current political and economic climate, the prohibitive cost to the public purse is likely to remain a serious obstacle.

[1] Child Benefit was a universal, non-means tested benefit paid to all families with children, regardless of income. From January 2013, households where at least one person earns more than £50,000 have their child benefit means-tested. Eligibility for child benefit is lost entirely for those earning £60,000 or more, while families where one parent earns between £50,000 and £60,000 have their benefit reduced.
[2] For example, Child Tax Credits can be paid to the main carer


Movements must be built from the bottom up

📥  living wage, universal income

Before he became an Anglican priest in the late 18th century, and wrote the much-loved hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton was a slave trade sea captain. He bought and sold slaves, raping, torturing and killing them in the course of his journeys across the Atlantic. Despite being a deeply religious man, he had no moral scruples about it. Only later in life did he come to look back in horror on what he had done, when the abolitionist movement had begun seriously to challenge the slave trade.

DCF 1.0


Newton’s case encapsulates “the stunning transformation of moral consciousness”, as the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson puts it, that swept across the world in opposition to slavery in the century or so that followed the late 18th century. Anderson uses Newton’s biography to open an important and illuminating lecture on how moral progress is achieved. In it, she takes the history of the abolition of slavery as the starting point of an exploration into how social movements can challenge and then change social norms by establishing new ways of living that vindicate their moral claims. In particular, she looks at how the powerful can confuse their self-interest with moral right, cloaking oppression and injustice in moral claims, until these are contested by social movements that succeed in creating social institutions and practices based on new norms. There is nothing inevitable about this, however. Social movements can be reactionary as well as progressive, and they can fail in their efforts to establish new ways of organising society.

Social movements have critical roles in fostering social change: they mobilise and unify people around clear goals, and demonstrate their moral worth and commitment in their campaigns and organising activities. When we think about “doing good”, these questions of agency become important. Moral progress is not handed down from on high, but won through active participation. Anderson’s essay draws our attention to how we learn by doing, and how we succeed in making lasting change when our experiments in living become successfully embedded in new institutions, socio-economic organisations, and legal frameworks.

What does this mean in practice? A myriad of things, of course. But an example from our recent experience might help to explain the argument: the campaign for a Living Wage. This started as an initiative of faith groups and citizen activists, mobilising around a clear, morally charged goal of ensuring that wages are high enough for people to live on, such that they can enjoy their lives outside of work, with friends and family. It was grounded in active organising. It spread out of the voluntary sector into the private and public sectors. It got backing from foundations and corporations, and then public authorities like the Greater London Authority. Eventually, political parties came to support it and more and more companies started to pay a Living Wage. The journey is not over, by any means, but lots of progress has been made.

This post was originally written for the Big Lottery Fund blog.


Universal income or universal divide

📥  Economy, EU Referendum, Finland, labour market, Switzerland, universal income

Dr Luke Martinelli, Research Associate

Interest in universal basic income has been intensifying lately, with a discernible proliferation of opinion pieces in the mainstream press. While the reasons for the increased awareness are up for debate, it has surely been fuelled by an increasingly precarious global economic outlook, with rising inequality, the growth of in-work poverty alongside worklessness and underemployment, and the impending claimed obsolescence of labour due to automation all posited as problems with which existing welfare state institutions are ill-equipped to cope. The idea, popular among social democrats and libertarian thinkers alike, is simply to provide everyone with an unconditional income, without intrusive means-testing and work requirements: to provide, in the words of basic income’s long-standing advocate Philippe Van Parijs, “a floor on which [people] can stand, because it can be combined with earnings, rather than a net in which they can easily get stuck”.

In any case, basic income – for decades an abstract idea at the margins of the welfare debate – may soon become reality in a number of European countries. Finland and the Netherlands have already opted to trial basic income schemes in the coming years, and this Sunday, Switzerland will hold a national referendum on whether to introduce legislation to pay each of its citizens a proposed 2500 SFr. per month.

At the IPR, as part of a project assessing the case for a universal basic income in the UK context, we are following these developments keenly. This week we were delighted to welcome Jurgen De Wispelaere, a member of the working group advising the Finnish government on the upcoming experiment, to share his considerable expertise in an informal seminar. view Jurgen’s presentation.