Freely giving away money to thousands of people with no strings attached was always going to make Finland’s 2017 Basic Income experiment a focus of study for sociologists, psychologists, politicians and economists for years to come.
Following the experiment’s termination in 2018, multiple studies have been more or less consistent in their conclusions. People tend to be happier and more confident, but aren’t necessarily keen to hit the pavement in search of employment.
This latest report published by the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health doesn’t make any challenging new claims. But at a time when the world is in the grip of an employment calamity, its conclusions are a timely reminder to reconsider the benefits of economic safety nets.
As a quick recap, at the beginning of 2017 Finland’s government rolled out a trial run of a guaranteed tax-free income of €560 (roughly US$590) per month to 2,000 randomly selected citizens.
If those citizens happened to find employment, this bonus income wouldn’t budge, so if everything went to mud they’d still have at least a proportion of essential bills and expenses covered.
The concept of a guaranteed universal basic income (UBI) isn’t novel, but it has attracted attention in recent years as impressions of the great social divides in wealth and happiness grow dimmer by the year.
Proponents suggest that, without fear of bedrock-level poverty, citizens would take greater employment risks, accept lower paid jobs and even become more entrepreneurial. Critics, on the other hand, see UBI as a lost incentive to find work at all.
Finland’s trial ended less than two years after it began, and the assessments on its impacts trickled in.
This latest exploration conducted by researchers from the University of Helsinki involved several sub-projects that looked at the trial’s wealth of data from various perspectives, including its impact on wellbeing, employment, and media coverage.
As far as general happiness goes, results from one of the project’s self-reported surveys reinforced the general notion that if we all had some kind of universal basic income to rely upon in times of need, our average sense of wellbeing would improve.
We’d be less depressed, and probably even think clearer as our cognitive functions improved. Trust in society and social systems would go up, and we’d see our future in a better light.
As for whether it would sap our desire to work at all or inspire us to become the next great inventor, the results are just as complex as ever, with those on the UBI working on average just six more days out of the two years than those in the control group, an effect that was most evident in the trial’s second year.
If it’s an incentive to take risks in finding work, it’s not a huge one. But as usual in these sorts of studies, headline statistics can mask complexities that can show us how to turn a lacklustre result into a success, or at least avoid abject failure.
“Some people said the basic income had zero effect on their productivity, as there were still no jobs in the area they were trained for,” social scientist Helena Blomberg-Kroll from the University of Helsinki told The Guardian.
“But others said that with the basic income they were prepared to take low-paying jobs they would otherwise have avoided.”
Many people reported the income gave them a sense of autonomy, allowing them to return to meaningful activities they might have enjoyed before they needed to grind away at a nine-to-five.
Not all ‘work’ done for the community is counted by way of employment statistics, after all, comprising a measure that might be more important to break down in future studies.
More research will certainly be vital to dive into these details on UBI, especially as the world struggles to find new social and employment structures amid a devastating pandemic.
Some panned the Finland trial as flawed from the start – based on too few with too little money. Even this latest research identifies a potentially confounding shift in the conditions of unemployment benefits that took place in 2018.
“Therefore, the positive employment effect in the second year of the experiment was a joint effect of the basic income experiment and the amendments to the unemployment benefit legislation,” the researchers write.
If advocates are hoping for a gold star report to turn the tide of support in favouring a UBI, this report isn’t it.
By the same token, there are glimmers of hope in its findings, indicating that just under half of respondents in a survey on Finnish attitudes to a UBI being in its favour. With more personal stories being identified in the media, those opinions could be encouraged to change with time.
A universal basic income probably won’t be the salvation we’re looking for in dark times ahead. But if the sum of research so far is anything to go by, countries that adopt one won’t regret it.
This report was published by the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.