What if everyone was given a basic income, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, employed or unemployed, young or old, disabled or able-bodied? Proponents of a universal, or unconditional, basic income (UBI) say it will solve most of society’s current ills by reducing poverty, increasing nutritional health and mental wellbeing, redistributing jobs in the face of increasing automation and helping to create a more inclusive, fairer society.
Opponents, on the other hand, argue that people will choose not to work if a UBI is introduced, that a basic income will create an unfair tax burden on the wealthier segments of society and will cost the jobs of those currently involved in social welfare distribution, unemployment benefits and trade unions.
In either case, the decades-old debate has become a hot topic in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands.
On 16 June 2015, a local Utrecht newspaper (De Stad Utrecht) published an interview with Victor Everhardt, a local alderman for work and income. In the article, titled "Utrecht to start experiment with a basic income", Everhardt said Utrecht would hold an experiment to see if a basic income could work after the summer break.
However, the story had changed somewhat by the time Equal Times requested an interview with Everhardt. His spokesperson Ingrid van der Aa told us: “At this stage, the research project is a proposal, still in development. In order to start our experiment, we need approval from the national Department of Social Affairs. We hope to get approval later this year. If the project is approved, we would like to start in 2016.”
Van der Aa was also keen to stress that “the introduction of a universal basic income is not what this research project is all about. Our goal is to simplify the current (complicated) rules and requirements of welfare. The key question in our experiment [which will be run in partnership with Utrecht University] is what conditions support or work against the efforts of people on benefits towards paid employment...what are the effects of less rules/different rules/no rules? That is what we want to investigate in a structural way.”
So what is going on? Is it a basic income experiment or not?
Equal Times spoke to Loek Groot, Associate Professor of Public Sector Economics at Utrecht University’s School of Economics. He is working with Utrecht City Council to develop the experiment.
He said: “It is framed that way in the media, but it is not a full experiment. To be a full experiment you would need to include workers to gauge behaviour changes. Also, only one of the three groups included will have an unconditional income. It is important to look at this issue because economic science does not yet know what will happen with a UBI; this project will provide knowledge to access the impact and address some of the radical uncertainty.”
Groot has been studying the potential of a UBI for a long time, and along with colleague Robert Jan van der Veen, he published three strategies in the book Basic Income, Unemployment and Compensatory Justice which could be used to implement it.
The first is the so-called “royal way” where you are upfront about the implementation of UBI and convince people it is the right way to achieve social justice. The second way, according to Groot and Van der Veen, is via social engineering, where you take people closer to UBI step-by-step by presenting aspects of it as mechanisms to solve societal problems. And the final method is the “backdoor policy” which is similar to the aforementioned but is more focused on influencing measures such as tax credits.
Adriaan Planken, chairperson of the (Dutch) Basic Income Association (Vereniging Basis Inkomen) suggested that what’s happening in the Netherlands qualifies as a backdoor policy.
“There have been talks about doing these sorts of experiments since 2014, with up to 50 municipalities working on proposals, including Utrecht, Tilburg, Leuuwaarden, Wageningen and Groningen,” said Planken. “Dordrecht was very far along in its plans when the government refused permission. No singe political leader has come out in favour of UBI here, but they are changing, because public opinion is changing.”
Trade union opposition
To date, three political parties have presented and passed motions in support of some form of UBI, including the liberal D66 party, GroenLinks and PvdA, the social democrats.
However, it is not just political support that is lacking for UBI in the Netherlands.
“Across Europe, in Romania, Italy, Latvia, Spain and Germany, the trade unions support the idea of a UBI, but in the Netherlands the trade unions oppose it as they are afraid that as they represent workers, it will be the end of their work.”
Senior spokesperson for the FNV trade union confederation, Harrie Lindelauff, told Equal Times: “The FNV rejects UBI for two main reasons: the enormous costs and the support among working people for social security. A UBI implies an enormous donation, to be paid by everyone, with the chance everyone ends up with a bare minimum. Equally important is that our system is based on the principle that those unable to work, due to sickness, inability or unemployment are supported, the willingness to contribute to this system would be undermined by a UBI”.
What the FNV is in favour of, Lindelauff said, is “the improvement of social security, such as the individualisation of benefits. We also advocate EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit), which stimulates work and becomes a basic benefit at the moment that someone cannot generate enough income.”
But Barb Jacobson, who is both the coordinator of the European Citizen’s Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income and a benefits officer in the UK, points to other outcomes, in experiments in other countries. “In India there was a project with self-employed women workers with fantastic outcomes. It reduced inequalities in the family and girls and disabled people were more included. In Namibia, and that was a subsistence-income only, it was shown to cut crime and people worked more. In the Canadian pilot, the health outcomes were spectacular.”
While the Dutch wrestle with questions of whether their experiment qualifies as a basic income pilot or not and whether it will even take place, other European countries are looking at more clearly defined issues of a UBI.
According to Jacobson, it is a clear choice. “No-one is addressing the real issue of distribution of work and it is a horrendous situation for many people. Scorched earth policies will lead us back to a master/servant society. We have a choice: complete neo-feudalism, or Universal Basic Income.”