In December 2016, Tuomas Mujara felt that he had won the lottery. This journalist freelance and a 45-year-old writer turned out to be one of the 2,000 lucky ones who were about to enroll in a project that, at first glance, seemed like a dream: to receive money for nothing
The Finnish Social Security wanted to check whether injecting 560 euros per month without any condition to a group of unemployed people throughout 2017 and 2018 would get clues about how social aid should be in the era of digitalization, how to encourage the search for employment among the beneficiaries of subsidies and how to reduce bureaucracy. Once the project is finished, the conclusions are ambiguous.
Preliminary results show that money dropped from heaven had no effect on the employability of participants. They worked practically the same hours and earned the same -except basic income income- than another group with similar characteristics. In contrast, the basic income did serve to boost the health, self-esteem and optimism of the future of its beneficiaries.
Even before the conclusions of an unpublished experiment in Europe were presented last Friday, Mujara was sure of what they were going to be. And his response was quite similar to what later would be given by those responsible for the study. "Of course the participants have continued to look for employment. First, because with 560 euros you can not live in Finland. And second, because having the security of a minimum income does not make you vaguer, "he assured this newspaper on Thursday. When asked about the best of his experience, Mujara did not hesitate a moment: "freedom". Freedom from not having to fill out long forms to ask for help, freedom to know that, whatever happens, at the end of the month I would have a check, even for a small amount.
Proponents of the project insisted that a basic income without conditions of any kind would prevent recipients of aid from rejecting jobs for fear of exceeding the minimum income level to receive subsidies. And that by not having to deal with the bureaucracy with social services, they could spend that time looking for a job more effectively. Some participants in the program-chosen by lottery among 175,000 people who received some type of unemployment benefit in 2016-charged an amount very similar to what they received before, but the level of stress due to the concern to renew the application dropped considerably. "Freedom makes you more creative. And being more creative makes you more productive, "summarizes Mujara.
The basic income is an old idea. And, in the face of the widespread image that it is a leftist initiative, it has sometimes been defended by liberal-conservative ideologists who presented it as the perfect excuse to eliminate other social aid. The Finnish experiment was born, as its promoters admit, with two limitations: to be directed to a specific group, that of the unemployed, and a predetermined duration of two years.
Olli Kangas, a professor at the University of Turku who has led the research, is satisfied with the results, despite insisting that they are still provisional. The final conclusions will be known next year. But for now, it is important that the participants in the pilot have felt more secure, in charge of their lives and with better mental and physical health. "I am aware that the opponents of the basic income will not pay attention to these improvements, and will focus on the fact that the project had no effect on their employment situation," Kangas continues.
The truth is the possibility of Finland introducing some kind of basic income on a generalized basis seems to move further and further away. The project was born with the idea of being extended and extended to other groups beyond the unemployed, but the center-right government announced in April 2018 that it would stay in only two years. Finance Minister Petteri Orpo has made clear his disdain for the program. And none of the major parties that aspire to obtain a majority in the parliamentary elections next April show many sympathies for expanding the project. "Neither the social democrats nor the conservatives nor the unions defend basic income," admits researcher Kangas.
In the academic world, the positions are very opposed. Miguel Ángel García, Fedea researcher, does not hide his skepticism about a basic income whose implementation would not only be "expensive but very complicated". "I do not think that society would receive well a generalized income for all. And that a retiree who has worked all his life will receive the same as someone who has worked harder. I think it is a priority to seek solutions for groups such as the working poor and those who do not have access to the labor market; rather than promoting measures as dubious as basic income, "he adds.
Opposite he runs into activists like Guy Standing, researcher at the University of London and author of The basic income, A right for all and forever, which believes necessary to rethink our concept of work and time, and seek resources wherever possible to ensure decent living conditions for all citizens. "The experience of Finland is not a good example, because the participants were chosen at random throughout the country. And not in a small community, where the benefits are more evident, "he explains by telephone.
Kangas, the head of the Finnish study, admits some shortcomings in his experiment and that perhaps the prospect of a basic income in his country is even less realistic today than yesterday. But, he asks, who knows what will happen in the medium term? "Could an American 200 years ago imagine that slavery was going to be abolished?" He throws into the air.
There are almost as many basic rents as defenders have this idea. In its purest form, it is a state payment of universal character (for all members of a community), unconditional (regardless of income and wealth) and unlimited in time.
What may seem like a utopian initiative has an annual congress where scientific studies are presented. And countries as diverse as Canada, India, Kenya, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany or Spain have carried out or plan experiments with different types of basic income. The much talked about citizen income of the Italian M5S has finally been reduced to a way to complete the unemployment subsidy up to a maximum of 780 euros.
Guy Standing, one of the main connoisseurs -and defenders- of the basic income, highlights the experience of Kenya, where 21,000 adults will receive an income up to 12 years, for its long duration and impact in a community, instead of a dispersed collective, as in Finland.