Universal Basic Income has many proven benefits. But what do people think about it? Who supports UBI? Under what conditions? Who doesn't, and why?
Basic income, usually defined as “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement”, is increasingly seen as a promising policy solution to a series of very serious social problems, including persistent poverty, growing levels of income inequality, perpetual health inequities, and the imminent threats of AI-driven unemployment (van Parijs & Vanderborght, 2017). Whether basic income can effectively live up to its promises remains to be seen, as it has not yet been fully introduced anywhere.
The crucial question is whether basic income can count on the necessary support to make it politically feasible. It is often argued that it does not, because the idea of a basic income supposedly faces strong opposition from multiple politically powerful actors. Right-wing parties might fear that a universal basic income will unwittingly attract migrants like a welfare magnet (Borjas, 1999). Trade unions might worry about the effects on collective bargaining power (Vanderborght, 2007). The general public, it is often assumed, would be opposed to basic income, because it would rather not see cash being handed out to people considered ‘undeserving’ of social welfare (Laenen, 2020), like the “filthy” rich or the “lazy” unemployed. These views are opposed, however, by those who think that basic income is supported by most, simply because it promises to give “free money” to all.
There is, however, plenty of research suggesting that it can tackle those problems, as pilot experiments and microsimulation studies very often conclude that basic income will likely lead to positive social outcomes (e.g., Widerquist, 2018; Aerts et al., 2023). Furthermore, many argue that introducing a universal basic income (UBI) is also administratively and financially feasible, which makes it a viable policy option for the future welfare state. Considering the existing evidence, it seems that basic income has a bright future ahead of it. But does it really?
In “The Popularity of Basic Income: Evidence from the Polls”, I show that matters are way more complex than those two competing views on public opinion. Using data from opinion polls and newly developed experiments collected in 36 countries and between 1989 and 2021, the book demonstrates that popular support for basic income is contingent on at least four key factors.
First, support is contingent on the context people live in. Support for UBI tends to be greater in economically disadvantaged countries (for example, in Eastern Europe) or disadvantaged regions within countries (for example, in the French-speaking part of Belgium) and during challenging times (for example, the Covid-19 pandemic).
Second, support is also contingent on individual characteristics such as age, income and political ideology. Surveys consistently show that older people, high-income earners and right-wing voters in particular are markedly less supportive of basic income than their respective counterparts.
Third, support is equally contingent on the policy design features of basic income, and some types are more popular than others. Surveys often reveal that relatively generous basic income schemes receive greater approval than those that are below the basic subsistence level in a country. Likewise, conditional types of basic income –which grant income only when participation requirements are fulfilled, such as care work, volunteering, or working– are often preferred over their unconditional counterparts, especially when these are also fully universal.
Fourth, support is also contingent on how predicted social outcomes of basic income are framed. Remarkably, several studies suggest that support is more likely to decrease when these outcomes are negatively framed (for example, stating that poverty would grow) than it is to increase when they are framed positively (for example, saying that poverty would reduce). This phenomenon is known as ‘negativity bias’.
In addition, those four factors of contingent support also interact with each other, so that ultimately different types of basic income, which are predicted to produce different outcomes, are supported by different people in different contexts. It is the task of UBI advocates to find out who supports (or opposes) the specific type of basic income they wish to see implemented in their particular context, and for which reasons those constituencies support (or oppose) it.
Nevertheless, the book identifies a number of political challenges that apply to most (though not all) types of basic income and to most (though not all) contexts. Following Guy Standing’s phrasing (2020), I describe these challenges as political “giants” as follows:
First, basic income is usually opposed more strongly by some groups that possess the greatest political power to influence policymakers: high-income earners (Gilens, 2012) and the elderly (Pampel & Williamson, 1985). Additionally, the opposition from right-wing voters can present further problems, as it obstructs the formation of broad coalitions needed to introduce (and, above all, sustain) basic income policies.
Another key challenge is represented by citizens’ preference for basic income types that seem least feasible from an administrative or financial point-of-view. A participation income (Atkinson, 1996), for example, might well be the most popular and thus politically feasible option, but many commentators have warned that the control apparatus needed to monitor whether everyone meets the participation requirements would be a costly administrative nightmare. Likewise, the cards are stacked against basic income in terms of financial feasibility when the demand for a generous amount is not matched with a willingness to increase taxes or make budget cuts, as opinion polls show is often the case. The fact that support for basic income decreases with economic prosperity also contributes to such demand-capacity conflicts (Parolin & Siöland, 2020).
The remaining political challenges have to do with the fact that:
- People’s negativity bias makes it much easier for political opponents to discredit the policy proposal than it is for proponents to build support for it.
- Support might be “cheap” (De Wispelaere, 2016) in the sense that there is some evidence that people are considerably less supportive of basic income if their opinion has real-world consequences, as it had for example in the Swiss referendum on basic income (Colombo et al., 2016).
- Support for basic income is often on a par with, or lower than, support for its policy competitors – some of which already exist (such as means-tested social assistance), some of which do not (like guaranteed employment). Accordingly, basic income faces high political opportunity costs.
All things considered, it might seem like the political future of basic income looks very grim. And basic income advocates might be accurately described as David who has to fight several Goliaths at a time.
Although this may look like an impossible task, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The book argues that each political challenge comes with its own political opportunities. For example, the bright side of elderly people being opposed to basic income is younger groups are much more supportive of it. Some have interpreted this as evidence that future generations will be more open to basic income. This conclusion is, however, premature, as we currently do not know whether this is a generational effect, or an age effect that will disappear as young people grow older. Whether these will materialize or not remains unclear, and only time and future research will tell.