Since 2015, there has been a surge in political and media interest in a universal basic income (UBI) in OECD countries.
For example, on Feb 16, 2022, the Welsh government announced plans to roll-out a basic income pilot for care leavers.
It will provide a benefit of around £1600 a month for 2 years to roughly 500 people. An amount that would be one of the highest levels of benefit offered in such an experiment and roughly equivalent to the statutory minimum wage. Although it will be taxed as income by the UK government.
A UBI is often defined as a “regular income to all individuals within a political community, irrespective of working status or income from other sources, with no strings attached” (Van Parijs & Vanderborght 2017) and as such marks a radical departure from existing social security systems that have job-seeking requirements and are either means-tested or based on a contribution record.
The most tangible development in response to this growing interest has been the mushrooming of social policy experiments, either loosely or directly tied to the idea of a basic income, instigated by governments of various levels.
The motivation for this report is to respond to the continued desire of governments and organisations to pursue basic income experiments by providing an evidence-based summary of existing experiments for policymakers in OECD countries.
We identified 38 relevant experiments, 21 of which had been completed by November 2021.
What did we find?
- The majority were ‘bottom-up’ and not led by national governments, with a growing trend for the involvement of NGOs.
- Most had a small number of participants.
- Most focused on low-income households or benefit recipients rather than on a sample from a universal population.
- Nearly all were targeted and dispersed rather than universal within saturated sites.
- Evidence on employment outcomes is weak or not statistically significant in most cases. Except for certain sub-groups in specific contexts.
- Most experiments show positive wellbeing effects, although the evidence is also often limited and subjective.
- No experiments to date have ended with the implementation of a basic income
- Most have not led to any clear policy reform according to available data.
Key points for policymakers
How to meet research goals:
- Pay attention to sample size and design simplicity to enhance evidence robustness.
- Under-researched UBI elements include: effect on non-benefit recipients or members of low-income households; effect over a longer period of time; and its effect on a small community when it is universally provided.
How to meet pilot goals:
How to meet political goals:
Understanding our work
This report aims to provide an experimental design ‘tool-kit’ for policymakers by drawing on past experiences of governments in OECD countries.
Our rapid evidence review gives a comprehensive and systematic mapping of all UBI experiments that fall within our criteria. The review compares the characteristics, key results and policy outcomes of all the experiments in OECD countries that we have included and highlights some common themes.
The review identifies 38 experiments that fit our criteria, although many of these are within the same context or receive similar funding, such as the four negative income tax experiments in the US in the 1960s and 70s and the ten experiments conducted by Dutch municipalities between from 2017.
How to design a UBI experiment?
We have grouped policymakers’ goals into three distinct categories:
‘Research’ goals relate to the advancement of (global) knowledge about the effects of a basic income on a variety of outcomes. On this front, broadly speaking, we suggest careful consideration should be paid to the sample size and the simplicity of the design to enhance the robustness of the evidence.
Past experiments have often included multiple interventions the effects of which are difficult to disentangle, particularly with a small sample size. Policymakers could also consider the gaps in current knowledge and design experiments so that aspects of a basic income that we do not have clear evidence on are examined. This may include, for example, (1) the effect of the benefit on those that are not already either benefit recipients or members of low-income households, (2) the effect of the benefit over a longer period of time or (3) the effect of the benefit on a (small) community when it is universally provided.
‘Piloting’ goals relate to the desire to road-test a policy that could feasibly be implemented by the government pursuing the experiment.
With such a goal in mind, it is essential to use a design that would be fiscally and legally feasible for that level of government to implement. This has not been the case in many past experiments, which inevitably limits the extent to which policy reform can be initiated that directly builds upon lessons from the experiment.
‘Politics’ goals relate to the enhancement of public understanding and support for basic income and its principles.
The insights from academic literature are highly limited here given existing research does not focus as much on the political and policy achievements or failures of UBI experiments.
Yet, clearly political goals are at the heart of many of these experiments given they often test schemes that they could not implement.
Thus, we can infer that a key aim of the experiment is to persuade others that may have the power to implement such a policy. Designers of experiments here must tread a fine line between wanting to convey the reliability of their findings, precisely to strengthen the message that their policy intervention works, or to involve themselves more directly in outreach efforts and political campaigning alongside the experiment.
This is a trade-off because the latter risks falling foul of RCT guidelines and avoiding any outreach or campaigning risks entirely losing the public relations battle in framing the purpose and findings of the experiment.
This report should be cited as: Chrisp J, Smyth L, Stansfield C, Pearce N, France R & Taylor C. Basic income experiments in OECD countries: A rapid evidence review. London: EPPI Centre, UCL Social Research Institute, University College London.