The Universal Basic Income, a salvation for young people?

Editor's note: The following article, written by young Frenchwoman Marie Cucurella, a student of youth policies, specialized in European Union affairs, was originally published July 5 on YO! Mag, a youth-focused online magazine by the European Youth Forum.

Cover source: YO! Mag

Cover source: YO! Mag

Who wouldn’t dream of being paid every month for… doing 'nothing'? Seems absolutely unrealistic and utopian? Well, it’s not. The idea is spreading worldwide; some countries are even on the verge of implementing it as a test.

It’s being called the Universal Basic Income (UBI).

What is Universal Basic Income?

The UBI would be a basic monthly income, to be provided by the government to all the people living in its territory, without any distinction of social class, origin or age. This revenue would be independent from work or any other income.

The idea comes from Thomas More’s well-known book Utopia. He described it as a way to reduce theft. Since the 16th century, the idea has evolved and developed in many ways.

A few experiments have taken place already, including an early trial in the 70s in Canada. The results? Education improved, working hours for new mothers and teenagers dropped, and fewer people suffered work injuries.

A way out of precariousness

Can we consider the UBI as a wage for doing nothing? I certainly wouldn’t say so.

Indeed, many supporters of the UBI base their argument on the fact that each and every individual, woman or man, working or unemployed, old or young, is adding value to society. And we all are.

UBI would diminish precariousness. We would be free to choose a job we actually like. We could work on plans and projects without having this abundant fear of failure; the fear of losing everything and ending up on the streets. We could invest our time to the good of society, volunteer and act for causes we care about. We would have the means to achieve our dreams.

The aim? Allow people to choose how they want to live their own lives, without having to make choices based on financial necessities. The UBI would not be enough to live comfortably. People would still need a job. But, at least, they would have a choice. They wouldn’t be forced to work long hours, barely paid, in an uninteresting job. We would have time to study, to do trainings, to look for a job that actually suits us. All this without being too worried about our financial security. The UBI would provide us with a safety net.

Poster calling for basic income. Credit: Russel Shaw Higgs/Flickr

Poster calling for basic income. Credit: Russel Shaw Higgs/Flickr

We, young people, could be students with stability, can you imagine? We wouldn’t have to work part-time jobs in conjunction with our classes and could actually focus on our studies. We would be able to be interns without a precarious situation.

Jess, a young woman from Australia living in Switzerland, told YO! Mag : "A few years ago, I was a full-time student, a part-time worker and I was also volunteering in a non-governmental organization (NGO). This was a difficult time of my life. Clearly, a basic income would have helped me overcome my financial difficulties and allow me to commit more both to my studies and to my volunteer position."

Nina, a Portuguese girl also living in Switzerland, added: "I am both a student and an intern. With no grant from the Portuguese state, I have to say that my financial stability is all but guaranteed, and it’s quite a stressful situation."

Toward social equity

The first question that comes to mind, obviously, is how to finance such a measure. Of course it is a nice idea – on paper – but come back to reality, right?

Well, let’s make it real. There are so many ways to finance the UBI, many of which would lead to a redistribution of wealth. But it all depends on how each country decides to set up the implementation of the income.

Economist Martino Rossi came up with a sustainable idea. True, it might not be applicable to all countries, but it would be at least for Switzerland or other 'economically healthy' ones.

He suggested that one third of the wages and profits from the country be directly taxed and used to finance the UBI. This would contribute to reducing inequality, as it would help to re-equilibrate salaries.

Let me give you an example. In Switzerland, the discussed UBI would be around 2,500 Swiss Francs (CHF), which is really tight to live on.

Let’s say I used to receive a quite low salary of 3,000 CHF. I would be taxed one third of my wage, therefore I’d earn 2,000 CHF, added to which I’d receive 2,500 CHF of UBI. I would end up every month with 4,500 CHF. On the opposite side, my neighbor, who gets paid 12,000 CHF, would now receive 8,000 CHF of his salary.

With the UBI, he would earn 10,500 CHF per month. My salary would increase, his salary would reduce a bit by contributing to the UBI, and therefore inequalities between our wages would be smaller. Such an application of the UBI would lead to more social equity.

And what about welfare? Well, the UBI could be an alternative. As Jess says, it could be "a replacement for the better."

In many of our European countries, welfare systems are being diminished: pensions, student grants, unemployment benefits, social protection… It seems like solidarity funds are under attack.

Well, the UBI could cut short these debates, and develop a welfare system such as we’ve never seen. That is, for most countries. Sofie, a Swedish young woman, disagrees. "The Swedish welfare state is extremely appropriate, very few people are left behind," she said. "I don’t think a UBI would be a change for the better. I’m absolutely not against it, I just don’t see the need for it." But the Swedish welfare system is strong, and we cannot say the same about most of our European systems.

A path to idleness and capitalism?

I have to admit, it’s quite easy to defend such an idea if we focus only on the positive parts. But if we want to really see it happening, we have to examine everything. Objectors will say that people would stop working and exclusively rely on this income. Alarmists will claim society will collapse and people will become idlers.

Well, fair enough, it is an understandable –and possible– concern. But some studies show that only two percent of people would stop working. The others, as I pointed out above, would be empowered, and would get better jobs and trainings, achieving higher aims.

In building up this concern, the role of the media is huge. They put the emphasis on freeloaders, who take from society and welfare states without giving anything back. We’re often told about abusive individuals, who collect an unsaid and uncountable number of benefits and live on them. It is true that the UBI could give everyone the possibility to be a freeloader. In that sense, it has the potential to reduce stigma on welfare recipients. But mainly, I think we should be willing to take the risk to bet it wouldn’t happen.

More concerns? Fair enough.

Doubters will say that the UBI would be a way to enrich transnational companies and corporations. It would maintain consumerism, it would fuel capitalism. And it would do so on a faulty basis, since people still wouldn’t have jobs.

But let’s not forget that enterprises and companies would be taxed more, in order to finance the UBI, and therefore part of the funding would come from them. It might still be in their interest, but at least it would make them contribute and give back to society.

Moreover, the UBI is a basic income. The amount it constitutes will definitely never be enough to spend excessively. People on minimum wage or low revenue are not the ones who consume the most. Furthermore, if we follow Martino Rossi’s model, the very high salaries would be reduced for more equity, and it might even have the contrary effect on consumption.

The UBI, a utopia on the verge of becoming true?

Switzerland held a referendum at the start of June to write the idea into their constitution. Even though the UBI was massively refused, the fact that the question is officially raised is an impressive step forward.

The idea is spreading in Europe and beyond. Finland is going to implement it as a test from January 2017, for two years. Some cities in the Netherlands –such as Utrecht or Groningen– as well. I’m eager to see how these experiments will go, aren’t you?

Some might still say that the UBI would only work in an imaginary Utopian world. Well, that’s a possibility. But isn’t that the world we should be aiming for?