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What is Basic Income?

The past three decades have seen the elaboration of a vast body of literature on universal basic income, a radical policy proposal Philippe Van Parijs referred to as "a disarmingly simple idea." It consists of a periodic cash allowance given to all citizens, without means test to provide them with a standard of living above the poverty line. Basic income crosses disciplinary and political lines - with activists, philosophers, economists, conservatives, and liberals arguing both for and against it, and sometimes changing their minds.

Philippe Van Parijs Speaking at UBI Event

Universal basic income takes different shapes depending on how it is framed, what policies are suggested to support it, the society in which it is applied, and how it is funded. Each of these variables are dependent on the proposal and are not necessarily defining features of the concept itself.

On this page you will find the defining features of basic income, evidence collected thus far on the effects of cash-based grants, articles on basic income from a variety of disciplines, and literature on two popular alternatives to UBI -- basic job guarantee and basic capital.

Defining Characteristics

Adapted from Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN)...

  • Periodic: It is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), as opposed to a one-off grant or cash transfer.
  • Cash payment: It is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.
  • Individual: It is paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households.
  • Universal: It is paid to all, without means test.
  • Unconditional: It is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.

Experiments

The following table is a compilation of cash-grant experiment data gathered by GiveDirectly. The data is divided into the following columns to show that although there is research on cash-grants, it is challenging to verifiably replicate how UBI would look in practice.

  • Universal - is the cash-grant not means-tested?
  • Basic - is the cash-grant being substantive enough to cover living costs?
  • Long-term - is the period long enough for behavior change to occur?
  • RCT - is the study a randomized control trial?

Completed Recipients Universal Basic Long-term RCT
Manitoba (Mincome), 1975–1978 1300  *
New Jersey, 1968–1972 1216
Seattle/Denver, 1970-1980 4800  **
Rural Iowa & North Carolina, 1970–1972 809
Gary, Indiana, 1971–1974 1799
Namibia, 2008-2009 930
Madhya Pradesh, India, 2010-2011 6000
Ongoing
Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend, 1980 *** 1004  ****
Eastern Band of Cherokees Casino Dividend, 1996 *** 1420
Mein Grundeinkommen, Germany, 2014 100+
East Africa, GiveDirectly, 2017 27,000  *****
Ontario, Canada, 2017 +  
Finland, 2017 + 2,000
USA, YCResearch, 2017  

* included a single saturation site as part of overall study
** provided long-term payments to only 169 families
*** linked are experiments on long-term policies with cash allotment subject to funds available; "recipients" reflects the size of the study not the whole population that receives unconditional cash through these programs
**** includes one 12 year survey
+ Pilot ending late 2018/Early 2019