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Should we support the many basic income experiments that aren't actually testing UBI?

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
3 min read
Should we support the many basic income experiments that aren't actually testing UBI?

Questioning the strategy of non-universal cash grant pilot experiments

This debate is nothing new, but I’m seeing more of it as more and more mayors get on board with launching guaranteed income pilots in their cities. The count right now is 25 U.S. mayors by the way. None of the mayors so far are focusing on universality within an entire community.

Because of its unconditionality, basic income is for everyone, but because everyone gets it, we can look at its effects on certain demographics. What would UBI do for single mothers, for foster youth, for Black & LGBTQ communities, for artists, for veterans, for ex-felons, etc?

The pilots popping up all over the place to look at the effects of UBI on specific groups aren't saying that UBI is only for those groups. It's about getting people from different communities to think about the effects of UBI on their own communities.

In Santa Clara County, youth aging out of the foster system are now receiving $1,000 a month. Single Black moms in Jackson are receiving $1,000 a month. Pregnant Black and Pacific Islander women will be receiving $1,000 a month while pregnant and during their first six months as a mom in San Francisco. Seniors in high school in one school in New Orleans are receiving $200 a month.  

This is about storytelling.

If you can see yourself in the success story of someone provided unconditional basic income, then you are more likely to see the good sense of it. By creating a tapestry of stories people see themselves in, that's how we build a successful coalition.

A + B + C + D + E + F + G… = UBI

Any experiment we do will never actually be UBI, because the only way to do UBI is to do actual UBI. But in the same way UBI is a social vaccine, vaccines are trialed, but not on everyone, and the trials will never show herd immunity, but the effects on individuals show efficacy.

As a specific example, consider a basic income experiment focused on people just out of prison. The point is to show the effect UBI will have on recidivism, violence, etc. It's not saying that UBI should only be for criminals. It's demonstrating the effect UBI will have on crime.

The Finland experiment wasn’t UBI either, but by focusing only on unemployed people who would otherwise have received ordinary unemployment benefits, they were able to show that UBI successfully removes the disincentive effects of only receiving a benefit on the condition of remaining unemployed.

But basic income pilots are not only about showing it works, or getting people to see themselves in the success stories, it's also about getting influential organizations on board. A pilot focused on a demographic can win the support of an org focused on that same demographic.

When organizations that wield a lot of influence recognize that UBI will help accomplish their mission statements, then they can leverage their influence to get sitting politicians on board. That's when the wheels really start turning.

In South Korea, a province began providing basic income in a local currency only to 24-year-olds for one year. That proved so popular, it was extended to everyone in the province in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and that was so popular, that the province’s governor, Lee Jae-myung, may become the next president of South Korea with the intention of permanent national adoption of UBI.

To win UBI requires strategy, not purity.

We need to be doing everything we can to make UBI happen, and part of that is welcoming all those who wish to zoom in on what UBI will mean for the communities they most want UBI for.

In short, small pilots will never be UBI, but they can inspire people, and build a winning UBI coalition.

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Unconditional/Universal Basic Income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Founder and President of ITSA Foundation, Author of Let There Be Money; Editor of