Basic income is an unconditional, non-withdrawable income for every citizen. The Young Foundation is currently conducting basic income related research in Barcelona as part of the B-MINCOME experiment. Amanda Hill-Dixon explores what makes it unique.
Rethinking the welfare system
In November 1942 William Beveridge launched his blueprint for a British universal care system that would provide coverage ‘from cradle to grave’. Just over 76 years later a range of academics, practitioners, journalists, students, researchers, policymakers and citizens have come together to reimagine the welfare system for the 21st century as part of the LSE festival ‘Beveridge 2.0’.
Tackling the ‘giant of want’ with a basic income?
One of the big ideas debated in relation to tackling the ‘giant evil of want’, as Beveridge described it, or ‘poverty’ as it is now recast, was Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is an unconditional, non-withdrawable income for every citizen. There is arguably no better policy proposal to open up thinking about the future of welfare, work, and citizenship, not least because of the challenge it poses to core societal principles, such as the link between work and reward.
The Young Foundation is currently conducting basic income related research in Barcelona as part of the B-MINCOME experiment (named after the 1970s trial of Mincome in Manitoba, Canada). B-MINCOME is a two year trial of minimum income taking place involving 1000 participants and 1000 people in the control group in Besos, some of the poorest neighbourhoods in eastern Barcelona.
B-MINCOME is one of multiple UBI related experiments which are currently taking place, or being planned, in the global north alongside those in Finland, Ontario, Netherlands, and Scotland. These are the first such trials in the global north since the 1970s; this idea is clearly gaining momentum, and an evidence base to boot. Given the extremely promising results of such cash transfers in global south contexts, leading to reduced poverty, improved health and education, among other promising impacts, it is quite right that such an approach is now being tested in relation to poverty in the global north.
Despite these initiatives being widely described as trials of UBI, a closer examination suggests that very few if any of them can legitimately be described as UBI. This is because, in none of these places is a universal, unconditional, non-withdrawable payment to individual citizens being trialled. In most cases, one or more of these principles is compromised.
Nevertheless, this should not undermine the utility or value of these experiments as they help to shed light on the question of the likely impact of UBI and related policies, and how we can best design and implement citizen incomes or cash transfers in a way which is effective and feasible.
Crucially, it is important to recognise that while learning can be shared across countries and world regions, the answer to these questions will to some extent need to be context specific. The design and implementation of a basic income in a context such as Madhya Pradesh in India will necessarily be very different to global north contexts, such as Barcelona. Key contextual differences include levels of absolute poverty and average income, type and formality of labour, existence and complexity of existing welfare provision, and the government’s ability to collect taxes.
Like the majority of other trials going on, B-MINCOME is not strictly speaking a UBI but can more accurately be described as a minimum income. Although a minority of recipients are receiving a minimum income unconditionally and without risk of withdrawal (during the trial), the income is targeted at the poorest, many participants receive their income on a conditional basis and it is subject to withdrawal if their earnings increase.
So what is unique about B-MINCOME and what will it add to our understanding of basic income?
- Southern European context. B-MINCOME is the first major trial of a basic income in a Southern European context, still characterised in many ways by the impact of the 2008 economic and housing crisis, the centrality of the family for meeting social needs, and a discretionary approach to social protection. This will be the first time that the implementation of a basic income can be assessed in this type of context.
- Active support as well as cash. Participants are encouraged or obliged to participate in support programmes related to employment, social enterprise, housing or community action. This will allow us to investigate how people experience the combination of additional resources with active support and the impact this has.
- Households, not individuals. Consistent with the centrality of families in Spanish society, the income is being given to families, rather than individuals. This will allow us to explore how far individuals within households benefit equally and if there are any impacts on household dynamics, especially in relation to gender relations.
- Conditionality. Some participants are receiving the income conditionally and others are receiving it unconditionally. This will allow us to examine the impact that conditionality has on people’s experience of and use of the income.
- Lived experience. The Young Foundation and Barcelona City Council are conducting in-depth longitudinal ethnographic and participatory research with both B-MINCOME participants and the community more broadly. This depth of qualitative research offers unprecedented opportunity to explore people’s lived experience of basic income, how they understand it, view it, relate with it and why, and to what extent it affects experiences of scarcity. In particular, we will be able to explore the question of psychological feasibility – what are the enablers and barriers to the social acceptability of basic income – and what are the mechanisms of or barriers to change.
The Young Foundation will be releasing research findings in 2019.
For more information, please contact Amanda Hill-Dixon, Amanda.firstname.lastname@example.org