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April 4, 2014 / politicsbitesize

A basic income for all?

swiss-to-payLast October, in Bern’s Federal Square, a truck spewed forth eight million five-cent coins during a publicity stunt organised by the Basic Income Initiative.  The event coincided with the delivery of a proposal, signed by 126,000 people, to introduce an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) for all Swiss citizens.

In Switzerland, a proposal submitted to parliament with only 100,000 signatures is enough to trigger a referendum and so the issue of a basic income for all is now firmly on the table.  The scheme would offer every citizen a guaranteed basic income of 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,800) every month, regardless of the income they already receive.

The thinking behind it is comes from a leader in the Basic Income Initiative, the German-born artist and activist Enno Schmidt, who believes that growing unemployment and increased income inequality should be pro-actively tackled.  He told Truthout in an interview that, ‘basic income means enough money to live without need … It’s not to be rich. It’s simply to say, today we are rich enough and there are goods enough that we can say everybody needs an income to live.

A New York Times article reveals that Schmidt is well aware of the fact that the idea sounds crazy.  He asks people to think about it from their own point of view rather from the view of another: ‘what would you do if you had that income?’  Would you feel more empowered to work in a way that you wanted to rather than simply in a way that you had to in order to get by?

Proponents of the UBI consider it to be a more efficient way of providing a safety net in society for people in need and it is one way of combating rising inequality. But critics highlight concerns that, as well as the potentially prohibitive costs of such a programme, it could create a massive disincentive to work.

If the Swiss referendum gets a yes vote then the world would be able watch the economic experiment unfold.  However, it is not the first time that this concept has been trialled.  In the mid-1970s, the town of Dauphin in Canada implemented a social policy called ‘Mincome’.  For four years, around 1,000 of the poorest residents were given $1,200 per year, which they received in monthly instalments.

The results of this first experiment are currently being analysed by Evelyn Forget, a health economist at the University of Manitoba.  Her findings are yet to be fully completed, but so far she claims that thanks to Mincome, poverty in the town disappeared, the number of poorer children finishing secondary school went up and hospital admittance rates went down.

It is clear that the proposal is a very interesting one, but it is hard to see how or when it might actually be implemented.  A date has yet to be set in Switzerland for when a referendum vote will take place, and even if the proposal receives a yes vote it will take years for the legislation to take effect.  However, all is not lost.  The president of Basic Income Earth Network, Ralph Kundig, is optimistic that after a lengthy information campaign on the issue more countries will support, and eventually adopt, the UBI.

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