The idea of providing everyone with a guaranteed universal basic income (UBI) is something that is being increasingly discussed. One reason is that as automation increases, the need for human beings may decrease or their jobs may shift to ones that are low-skilled and thus pay less. Finland is one country that is trying out the idea of a universal basic income, with a pilot program that gives $587 a month tax-free to 2,000 residents, regardless of their job status or wealth with “the only caveat is that recipients had to have been receiving an income subsidy from the state.”
Giving people money regardless of whether or not they’re working seems to defy common sense about personal responsibility and how to boost productivity. But supporters of UBI have argued that it just makes sense as public policy, for several reasons. First, in the long run, it might be simpler and cheaper for the state to give people money than to oversee a complicated welfare bureaucracy. And it looks as if technological advances might level industries that may have seemed impervious to automation, such as truck driving: driverless vehicles will soon be out of the experimental stage, journalist Gwynne Dyer has noted. There’s controversy among economists over whether “robotization” will lead to a massive net loss in jobs. But many progressive economists point out that regardless of whether one views joblessness as the result of robots taking over or not, a UBI might nevertheless lessen the pain and social costs of mass unemployment.
Plus, as CNN points out, the policy might actually motivate people to look for jobs.
“The change could also encourage more jobless people to look for work, because they won’t have to worry about losing unemployment benefits. Some unemployed workers currently avoid part time jobs because even a small income boost could result in their unemployment benefits being canceled,” writes CNN.
“Incidental earnings do not reduce the basic income, so working and … self-employment are worthwhile no matter what,” Marjukka Turunen Finland’s social insurance agency told CNN.
Some parts of the US have already already do this. Some states like Alaska give each resident a portion of the proceeds (between $1,000 and $2,000) received from oil revenues and some Indian reservations such as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina that have casinos distribute some of the profits to tribe members. In 2016, every tribal member received about $12,000. This money has lifted many members of the tribe out of poverty and has had significant benefits, for children especially.
In two studies, one published in 2003 and a follow-up in 2010, Costello compared children who were lifted out of poverty after the casino opened to those who had never been poor. She scored them based on the presence of what researchers referred to as emotional disorders, like depression and anxiety, as well as behavioral disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Before the casino opened, Costello found that poor children scored twice as high as those who were not poor for symptoms of psychiatric disorders. But after the casino opened, the children whose families’ income rose above the poverty rate showed a 40 percent decrease in behavioral problems. Just four years after the casino opened, they were, behaviorally at least, no different from the kids who had never been poor at all. By the time the youngest cohort of children was at least 21, she found something else: The younger the Cherokee children were when the casino opened, the better they fared compared to the older Cherokee children and to rural whites. This was true for emotional and behavioral problems as well as drug and alcohol addiction.
The idea of a guaranteed income for everyone whether they work or not is appealing as a poverty fighting mechanism. But there is another, non-monetary aspect of work that is sometimes overlooked and that is that work can provide psychological benefits if the work is something that enables people to feel that they are contributing to the common good. That feeling may be hard to discern if one has an awful job with poor working conditions, no benefits, and terrible bosses but does the need to feel productive and useful ever go away? Is the need to contribute to society something innate or just a byproduct of the capitalist system that has conditioned us internalize the feeling that people must work if they are to live?
The idea of being able to spend one’s days as one likes without having to clock in for work that one despises might be appealing but in addition to providing people with income, we should also look into how we can also provide the feeling that one’s life is worthwhile and contributing to society. As a retired person, I do not work but have an income. In my case, I can feel that I have ‘earned’ my retirement after a lifetime of work and so can avoid the feeling of being a parasite on society. But how would I feel if I never had to work at all?