An (Un)conditional Basic Income? Justifications of Basic Income and Work Conditionality

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy. Click here to access the article.

There is one defining feature of universal basic income (UBI) that sets this policy proposal apart from most existing social security systems: its unconditionality. This means that a UBI would be given to all the members of a community without any work requirement , a principle that is in sharp contrast with a recent ongoing trend in the European welfare states, namely the conditionality of benefits . Welfare recipients, in particular the unemployed, are increasingly obliged to comply with specific requirements in order to keep their benefits.

It thus seems paradoxical that people can support both an unconditional basic income and work obligations for benefit receipt, as these policy schemes are diametrically opposed in terms of conditionality. However, this is what emerges from previous studies on public support for these specific policies. Understanding how people combine and justify their opinions about UBI and work conditionality is relevant in light of the attempt from political actors to build (or erode) public support for concrete policy proposals.

To investigate the arguments people use to justify their policy support, we use a bottom-up approach that allows us to explore what people freely think about these policies. Different from commonly used surveys, which generally ask people to give their opinions by choosing from categories that are pre-selected by the researchers, this approach seizes the spontaneity of the arguments respondents use to defend their ideas about specific policies.

We base our study on in-depth interviews conducted in the Dutch municipality of Tilburg, where recently a so-called “trust experiment” has been initiated. Although being restricted to social assistance recipients, this experiment is inspired by the basic income logic, as it relieves recipients of the work-related duties that normally they have to fulfil to receive their benefits. This experiment has come into play in the context of the Participation Act, which enabled Dutch municipalities to implement a policy instrument (named Tegenprestatie) that forces social assistance recipients to perform unpaid work to keep their benefits.

Thus, one would expect that these two policy schemes, which lie at two extremes in terms of conditionality, split public opinion into two contrasting groups: those who are in favour of the Tegenprestatie and against a UBI, and those who oppose the Tegenprestatie and are UBI enthusiasts. However, this does not seem to be the case amongst the participants of our research.

The findings from the interviews reveal that the arguments people use can be classified into two perspectives. A first perspective relates to the characteristics of welfare recipients. Many interviewees support a UBI as an instrument to give citizens in need the chance to have a basic security, thus improving the situation of the poorest. At the same time they raise the objection that a UBI would free recipients from “giving something in return” for the benefits, an argument that also relate to support for work conditionality. The emphasis on the strong work ethic characterizing the Dutch population falls within this argument: recipients have the duty to engage in work, especially those who are able to work.

The second line of arguments refers to the characteristics of welfare schemes, in terms of their administrative and financial feasibility. Doubts about the affordability of a UBI appear to be widespread amongst the respondents, but also those who support the Tegenprestatie question its practical feasibility, as it would require an expensive administration apparatus.

Based on this evidence, it can be noticed that the support these policies receive in surveys might mean something different than an absolute agreement on every feature of the policy. Our bottom-up approach reveals that qualitative research is very much needed in this field of policy attitudes. Together with survey data, which offer an important perspective of public support among the population at large, in-depth interviews help researchers and policymakers to understand how these policies can be combined and, thus, implemented in real world. This might be an important step in the present times of crisis, where a UBI is being currently considered a potential mean to address the negative effects of high unemployment.


About the authors
Federica Rossetti is a Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Belgium

Femke Roosma is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tilburg University, The Netherlands.

Tijs Laenen is a Postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Belgium

Koen Abts is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tilburg University, The Netherlands.

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