Two years ago, the Finnish government kicked off an ambitious universal basic income (UBI) experiment in which a group of 2,000 randomly selected unemployed citizens were given a monthly income -- no strings attached. Each person was allowed to use the money as he or she saw fit. The announcement made the news all over the world, with critics suggesting that "something for nothing" will lead to no good while supporters argued that a universal income that covers the basic necessities of life helps people train and prepare for more fulfilling jobs. Now, the results are in. One thing's for sure -- they haven't been spectacular.
The program introduced by the Social Insurance Institution (Kela), which ran from January 2017 until December 2018, offered a flat monthly payment of €560 ($634). One of the desired outcomes was to improve unemployment, which sits at a rate of 8.1% nationwide. While some of the participants found jobs during this period, the UBI's contribution was not significant compared to a control.
What can't be denied about the UBI experiment is that it made the participants happier and less stressed. According to the preliminary results, 55% of the recipients of basic income reported that their state of health was good or very good, while 46% of the control group said the same. People who had a basic income also reported a higher trust and confidence in other people, the government, and in their future prospects for work.
“Our results weren’t that surprising as it kind of confirms what we know from other pilots,” said Minna Ylikännö, who is a lead researcher at Kela. “People’s wellbeing is enhanced when they have some kind of financial security. They feel secure, so they feel better – that’s something which we see in other countries too, not just a Finnish experience.”
At this point, it's challenging to conclude whether this experiment was a success or a failure. At the end of the day, it depends on how you look at it. It's also not helpful to draw broad conclusions from the Finnish study. For one, it only involved individuals registered as unemployed. The payment was also rather modest, compared to the country's average gross monthly wage of €3,380. Seeing how the experiment only lasted for two years, there may be some long-lasting effects which might be only evident five or ten years from now -- that's something a study in the future will have to investigate.
In any case, this wasn't the first universal income experiment. One of the first was launched in the 1970s, in Manitoba, Canada, resulting in a decline in doctor visits and an 8.5% in the rate of hospitalization. Elsewhere, three provinces in the Netherlands, along with other studies in India, Italy, and Kenya have their own pilot programs currently underway. So, there is still much to learn from these social experiments.
“Even with these experiments, it’s very difficult to say anything conclusive about basic income,” Ylikännö told Wired. “Whatever experiments we do – we’re working in a society where people behave very unexpectedly. In order to know what basic income’s effects will be, we have to implement it."
These were just preliminary results. Researchers are still busy combing through all the data, so different patterns and interesting observations might appear next year when the final report is due.