The experiment by the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, which distributes unemployment benefits, gave €560 a month to 2,000 randomly selected unemployed people. The money was given, no questions asked.
The two-year trial came to an end last month, and a report on Friday showed that employment did not increase among the participants, but their general well-being seems to have gone up: recipients reported feeling less stressed, healthier and more confident in the future.
France has a basic income for the unemployed and those earning very low incomes, called the RSA, which decreases with the amount of money earned by working.
It not automatic, and economist Jean-Eric Hyafil, who has researched the question of universal basic income, says many people who are eligible for the RSA do not ask for it, either because they do not know they can, or they are ashamed.
Hyafil sees basic income as a way to address inequality, that many in France are currently protesting against, in the Yellow vest movement.
Below is an interview with Hyafil, edited for length and clarity.
Hyafil: It’s not the basic income that will help people find jobs. Basic income only makes sure they are not in poverty and that they will survive.
What will help them find jobs? First, you need to have jobs in the area where they live. If there are no jobs, they won’t find anything. Second, they need support and help to find the jobs. Third, they need to be trained if they don’t have qualifications.
It is a big mistake to think that the basic income will help people find jobs.
Q: The Finnish experiment of giving a base amount to unemployed people seems to have been less about a universal basic income, and more along the lines of what France already has: The RSA, a minimum income for the unemployed or the very low-income, even though it is not automatic.
Hyafil: Yes. It looks like the RSA. This was not a basic income experiment
Q: In the political and social climate of France, where we are seeing people taking to the streets for questions of inequality, where does the basic income enter into the debate?
Hyafil: I think it should be part of it, but it is difficult to do so, because it’s something that has to be advocated for.
Most of the people protesting in France are workers who are not well paid. They started protesting against the increase of petrol taxes. But petrol taxes are necessary if we want to reduce our consumption of oil and greenhouse gas emissions.
If we had a basic income, not only for the poorest but also for people in the middle, like workers, it could compensate the increases in oil taxes. That’s one logic: Increase taxes but give it to the workers. This could work, but none of the protesters have had this idea because they don’t know about the basic income, and they think it’s only something for the poorest and those who do not work.
Q: Benoit Hammon, the former Socialist candidate for president who ran against Emmanuel Macron, had initially pushed for a a universal basic income, before backtracking. Today, who is publically advocating for a basic income in France?
Hyafil: Many people who do it are on the far left, and they say it would bring the end of working. They are idealists, and not very credible.
But I would say that it would not be the end of work, but rather a way to improve the redistribution. And the main beneficiaries would be workers with low wages. But because many of them think it’s for the poorest and idealists, they think, ‘we don’t want that’.