Support for a universal basic income is inching up in Europe

Change is welcome.
Change is welcome.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
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No one knows if a universal basic income (UBI) will help answer the world’s economic problems. But a minimum payment to all citizens is being floated as a response to a digital economy rapidly reducing or transforming whole classes of jobs.

Finland and the Netherlands are running modest pilots, and others are being considered by governments in France, Switzerland, and the UK, and by a host of nonprofits

To gauge public enthusiasm for the idea, Dalia Research, a Berlin-based market research firm, has been surveying Europeans’ attitudes toward basic income since 2016. Dalia defined the UBI as an unconditional government payment to all citizens, regardless of their wealth or employment status, that covers basic needs and replaces other social-security payments.  

They’ve found a warm welcome. In a March survey, 68% of Europeans said they would vote yes in a basic-income referendum, up from 64% last year. The survey was put to 11,000 citizens in 28 European Union states and has a 1.1% margin of error.

But not everyone is ready to see it implemented right away—48% said they wanted to test the policy first, while 31% advocated for adopting it as soon as possible.

The 24% of respondents who opposed a UBI in both years were most concerned about the economic impact, including the expense, the risk of reducing the motivation to work, and the possibility foreigners would take exploit it. Those in favor of a UBI were most convinced by the promise of increased security and freedom, namely a reduced financial anxiety over meeting basic needs, more equality in opportunities, and the prospect of greater financial independence and self-reliance. 

The survey asked respondents what the most likely effect of a basic income would be on their work choices. This is the core unknown behind many basic income policies: will people just slack off? No one knows for sure but previous studies are promising. Trials during the 1970s in Canada and the US found people worked slightly less, but increased school attendance and family time, while hospitalizations, domestic violence, and mental health complaints all dropped.

The Dalia survey, similarly, found most people said they would not change their work choices, but would speed more time with family, volunteering, or training. Only 3% predicted they would stop working.

Surveys are one thing. Hard behavorial data is another. With a spate of new trials starting up around the world, we may have some less-theoretical answers soon enough.