European Countries Debate Giving Monthly Allowances

by Jacob Bojesson

Several European countries are considering giving all their citizens a monthly allowance, regardless of their job status, with no strings attached.

The idea is to eliminate spending in other areas of welfare — such as homelessness, crime and even programs determining the eligibility of benefit claimants — though critics argue it will make people lazy and have disastrous consequences on society.

This universal basic income (UBI) is scheduled to go on trial this year in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands. The experiment is set up to see how people decide to spend their time when they don’t have to worry about making enough to survive. The allowance will be around $950, with the option to live on it or supplement it with a job on the side.

Nienke Horst, a senior policy adviser for the city’s Liberal Democrat leadership, hopes the experiment will help people out of the so-called “poverty trap,” where they feel better off staying on welfare than getting a job.

Declan Gaffney, who served as adviser for the British government on social policy issues, believes the concept sounds too good to be true “because it is.”

Gaffney rejects the most common argument against UBI — that it will cost taxpayers too much — on the notion that the sum provided is based on redistribution of funding for other government services. Gaffney instead argues that people’s irrationality in a society without perfect foresight makes it difficult to successfully impose UBI.

“Unless we are completely relaxed about long-term worklessness — and all the evidence tells us we should not be — some form of conditionality seems to be essential,” Gaffney wrote in an op-ed. “But if UBI were subject to conditionality much of what it aims to eliminate would reappear: sanctions, eligibility testing, welfare bureaucracy.”

Switzerland is scheduled to vote on the implementation of UBI in the summer, despite a similar bill in the parliament getting rejected last fall. Switzerland is one of the wealthiest, and by extension most expensive, countries in the world. The UBI there would be set at approximately $2,800 per month, but most people oppose the entire plan.

Polls suggest that the Swiss people will follow the parliament’s vote against the proposal out of fear it will lead to more immigration and spikes in rent and taxes. In the unlikely event that the bill would pass, just 2 percent of Swiss citizens say they would quit their jobs altogether. Half of the people surveyed said they would spend more time with their families, while a substantial amount of others polled said they would further their education.

The person behind the proposal, Daniel Straub, said UBI “gives everybody the basics to live on and based on that, to live a full life.”

“We see it as a long-term project, and this vote is just a step.” Straub told Deutsche Welle in an interview published Tuesday. “It has to be a political process that should take many years so all voices can be heard, so it’s really democratic.”

Finland is also considering UBI.

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