Next month, the Finnish government is going to try something completely different to help its unemployed citizens: give them free money.
On Jan. 9, 2017, a randomly selected group of 2,000 unemployed citizens in Finland will receive a check for 560 euros (about $585) with no strings attached. They’ll continue to receive that check every month for two years straight, even if they find a job or continue to remain unemployed. This is part of an experiment to see what happens to people’s participation in the labor market after they’ve been guaranteed a certain amount of money.
There’s a debate going on across the world about what’s the best way to respond to the changing nature of work. “Basic income,” or the government cutting people a check regardless of whether or not they are employed, has gained traction among groups that have traditionally been in opposition with one another, as The New York Times reports:
Labor advocates embrace basic income as a means of increasing bargaining power, enabling workers to eschew poverty-level wages while holding out for better.
Libertarians see it as a means of shrinking government by consolidating social service programs. Liberals envision it as a way to remove the stigma of public assistance: Instead of standing in line at the grocery store bearing food stamps while suffering the judgment of other shoppers — Shouldn’t she be buying spinach instead of frozen pizza? — poor people would get the same check as everyone else.
The technology world has seized on basic income as the response to automation and its threat of joblessness. If everyone’s needs are being met, then society can embrace robots and liberation from drudge work.
Still, there’s an expectation held by some that giving unemployed people an unconditional amount of money will take away their primary motivation to look for work. But an alternative theory suggests that a basic subsistence could encourage people to seek out opportunities that were previously too risky or unrealistic. Knowing you have money coming in no matter what might embolden you to try and start your own business or pursue additional education in order to learn new skills.
The point is, there’s always been speculation to how people would respond to a basic income, but no one knows for sure. This experiment seeks to put some of those questions to rest by testing them using a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of evaluation. Depending on the outcome of the Finnish experiment (payments conclude in December 2018), the results could serve as a blueprint for how to replace or adapt safety net systems across the world.