Basic income: international evidence and innovation on our doorstep

January 29, 2019

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By Gail Irvine, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Basic income has what the PR practitioners would call ‘cut through.’ Of the range of fascinating policy issues I work on for Carnegie UK Trust, it’s one which tends to elicit some of the most engaged responses when I try it out on friends and acquaintances. For those who haven’t heard of the idea (it’s the concept of a regular, unconditional payment made to citizens, regardless of whether they are in work or not) they tend to want to learn more. Whether their starting point into the policy is one of excitement or scepticism, people want to understand how basic income might work and whether it could, in fact, constitute a better way forward for organising our social safety net and social expectations about work.

For those people who are already persuaded that basic income is the way forward, their support for the policy can be enthusiastic to the point of being unquestioning. On the flipside, there are people who dismiss basic income almost out of hand because it is so radically different from what has come before, and poses a new social paradigm which can be hard to get your head around. In conversation with a thoughtful and seasoned basic income campaigner at the Basic Income World Congress 2018, we discussed how the rarity and incompleteness of basic income pilots which have taken place globally makes it difficult to hypothesise its (positive or negative) effects. I mentioned the risk of ‘policy overload’ where basic income becomes seen as a possible solution to a wide range of highly complex social problems (poverty traps, welfare stigma, social divisions and inequality, destitution, gender inequality – broadening its appeal and desired impact but, perhaps, reducing its practicability and likelihood of success. Particularly at the point of seeking to test the outcomes of the policy via a pilot. He took my point. But he countered that people coming new to the idea get excited and energised by basic income because it makes them believe that change is possible. This – at a time when our social divisions feel deeply entrenched and so many people are sceptical of the capacity of our political institutions to respond to them – is a level of engagement not to be sniffed at. It offers a potential platform for a thoughtful discussion about the future of social security, and the expectations and responsibilities of citizens in a changing world of work.

It is exciting to be involved in an area of policy which makes people want to engage. What is happening in Scotland is particularly exciting, because work underway by four local authorities – Fife, Edinburgh, Glasgow and North Ayrshire, supported by NHS Health Scotland and the Improvement Service – places Scotland at the forefront of countries seriously considering how basic income could be piloted and what is effects might be. At Carnegie UK we have been working supportively where we can as a ‘critical friend’ to this Group who are undertaking a detailed, two- year basic income pilot feasibility study. They, and we, are keen to see a pilot take place in Scotland if it can be undertaken in a responsible and meaningful fashion, as we believe this would allow us to generate much needed evidence of how basic income might impact on people and communities.

The Group’s new report published this week, funded by the Trust, is not intended to provide a philosophical treatise on the merits or perils basic income. There are abundant examples of this type of thinking already in the basic income literature. Instead, the report profiles and draws out lessons from other significant basic income pilots underway around the world, asking – what can Scotland learn from these about how to run a pilot? It’s an excellent one-stop, myth-busting resource for understanding the origins and implementation of basic income pilots in Finland, the Netherlands and Ontario, Canada. It is a thoughtful, pragmatic reflection on some of the challenges and constraints these jurisdictions have run into. It sets out a series of questions around pilot framing, design, implementation, evaluation and communication which need to find appropriate responses within Scotland’s specific political context if a pilot is to run here and produce results which can be meaningfully analysed. As well as contributing to the Scotland’s own feasibility study, the report provides food for thought for groups around the world seeking to practically test this important and exciting policy idea.

Read the new report, Exploring the practicalities of a Basic Income pilot: insights from around the globe, here.

To find out more about the ongoing process of the Basic Income feasibility study studying place in Scotland, visit