Trying out the scheme in Finland pushed me to find better work opportunities. It beats a complicated benefits system
The Finnish basic income trial, of which I am part, finishes at the end of the year. Having been interviewed by nearly 70 separate media outlets, from the BBC to Le Figaro, the question I have been asked most often has been: how has the basic income trial changed my life? My answer is simple. In money terms, my life has not changed at all. However, the psychological effects of this human experiment have been transformative. I vastly prefer basic income to a benefits system fraught with complicated forms, mandatory courses and pointless obligations.
Before the trial, the risk of losing unemployment benefits and the cumbersome process of reapplying for them were an obstacle to accepting small job assignments. The bureaucracy involved made accepting some not worthwhile, or simply too risky.
The basic income trial started at the beginning of 2017. A random sample of 2,000 people aged 25 to 58 was chosen to take part and receive a monthly income of €560 (£475), with no requirement to seek or accept employment. The precondition was that the participants had received either a labour-market subsidy or a basic unemployment allowance from Finland’s social insurance institution Kela in November 2016. At that point I had just run out of a grant I had received and was officially a jobseeker, making me eligible to take part. The Finnish government wanted to find out if jobseekers obtain work more easily when the basic unemployment allowance is replaced with a basic income. During the trial the participants had the right to keep their basic income even if they found work.
The idea is that temporary and part-time work is becoming increasingly common, which may mean there is also a growing interest in social security models that support the acceptance of such work. The basic income trial has indeed resulted in work for myself and many other participants, from IT experts, artists and commerce professionals to new graduates. And there is little doubt that the trial benefits people in creative fields, freelancers, people doing expert work and project workers – an ever-increasing number of people.
My income consists of fees I charge as a writer and lecturer as well as grants I receive from various institutions. I have also had occasional brief periods of unemployment during which I have received unemployment benefits. My monthly income has varied from some €3,000 to nothing at all. The Finnish social security system allows an unemployed person to earn a maximum of €300 a month with a 50% tax set on any earnings exceeding that limit. While taking part in the basic income trial I have been able to accept speaking engagements in libraries and schools for a fee of €250, a seat in panel discussions in the SuomiAreena public debate forum and at book fairs.
Concerns have been voiced about the high cost of the basic income model. But free school meals, free basic education and universal basic healthcare are expensive too. Critics say that basic income at the level used in the trial cannot be extended to cover the entire population as this would create an adverse balance of some €10-15bn. But atypical employment relationships are on the increase and our social security system has become outdated. The system requires more investment to boost the minimum income level, to improve the level of financial incentives and to simplify it.
Basic income models do come with a small increase in taxation. For a large number of employed people this will, however, be compensated for by the basic income. As more people manage to find work while supported by basic income, taxation for everyone can be eased. In terms of purchasing power, basic income would have a predominantly positive effect as it would help people in low-income jobs the most. The critics fear that basic income will make people lazy. However, limited evidence from several basic-income trials from around the world prove that people use basic income to improve their quality of life and not as a licence to do nothing. Research has shown that unemployed people do not have a low motivation for work. Neither is it justified to say that unemployment on a large scale is the result of an unwillingness to work. The isolated cases of lazy, work-averse individuals so eagerly highlighted by the media do not represent the situation accurately.
I hope this trial encourages future governments to examine fresh options. My living costs today stand at nearly €2,000 a month – it’s a sum I would never be able to pay with just the basic income. And that was not the idea. Rather, basic income acts as the perfect incentive – it gives you security to chase other opportunities. It pushes you to seek fulfilling work – and isn’t that what unemployment benefits should do?