New polling, commissioned by the IPR from Ipsos-MORI, has revealed that there is support on balance among the UK population for the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Nearly half of all adults aged 18-75 (49%) expressed support for the UK Government introducing UBI at the level to cover basic needs – a radical idea to reform the welfare state by introducing a set payment received by all citizens, young and old, in and out of work. In comparison, a quarter (26%) oppose its introduction.

An idea gaining traction

The idea has been recently gaining ground internationally and in the UK, where the Scottish Government has announced funding for new research and a number of local authorities are developing schemes to test elements of a UBI.

However, when individuals were asked to consider UBI funded through increased taxation, support dropped to 30%, with 40% opposed. When they were asked to consider UBI funded through cuts in welfare benefits spending, support dropped to 37%, with 30% opposed.

The findings of the polling data show that support of the general principle of UBI is much stronger among Labour-leaning adults (63%) than among Conservative-leaning adults (40%). Conversely, once they were asked to consider the practicalities of a scheme funded by cutting existing benefits support falls among Labour-leaning adults to 34% and grows among Conservative-leaning adults to 49%.

In Scotland, where only last week Nicola Sturgeon announced new funding for UBI trials, significantly more adults strongly support UBI in general (23%) compared to in England (14%). However, overall support is no higher in Scotland than in England and 31% of Scots are opposed.

Other key findings from the analysis suggest that, regardless of whether they support or oppose UBI, 34% would prefer to fund UBI by increasing taxes on wealth, while 28% would prefer to fund it by cutting existing welfare benefits. Only 12% are supportive of funding UBI by raising income tax.

When assessing arguments that have been made in favour of introducing a UBI, the most convincing justification for introducing one was that it would be a way of rewarding and encouraging people doing “very important unpaid work, such as caring or other voluntary work” – 79% found this very or fairly convincing.

Assessing the case for UBI

This latest polling data underlines the political challenges that lie in the way of advances UBI or a variant welfare reform for the UK. It is a debate that is the subject of an extensive new IPR Policy Brief also released today, looking into the feasibility and practicalities of UBI in the UK.

Authored by economists from the IPR, this examines the increased interest and support for universal income in the UK and maps out different models for policy-makers to consider as part of wider reforms to the welfare system.

It suggests that despite general interest in proposals for universal income, a major political stumbling block arises once discussion moves away from general principles to concrete proposals about how to fund such a system. Its conclusions are backed up by figures from the latest polling data.

Drawing on extensive analysis of different economic models, it argues that if conceived as a replacement for most existing benefits, an affordable UBI would likely be inadequate in terms of coverage and support offered to individuals, but an adequate UBI would be unaffordable. For example, a UBI paid at £73.10 a week for working age adults that replaced existing benefits would cost an additional £143 billion over existing social security expenditure and require large increases in income tax revenue – but would increase working age poverty by approximately 7%; 42% of households would see their disposable income fall in this scenario.

Retaining existing benefits and adjusting them to take the UBI payment into account would mitigate against increases in poverty, with negligible numbers of poor household losing income – and would lead to some poverty alleviation (with adult poverty rates falling by between 14 and 20% of their previous levels in the schemes analysed here). But such schemes would offer less improvement with respect to financial work incentives, and would retain many of the disadvantages of complex and intrusive means-tested systems. In addition, such schemes would still require substantial tax rises (adding between 3 and 5% on income tax rates plus requiring the elimination of the personal tax-free allowance).

The analysis underlines a three way trade-off between meeting individuals’ needs, controlling cost and reducing the negative effects of means testing. As such the Policy Brief suggests that UBI advocates should be more realistic and less ambitious. A possible direction would be to trial more modest schemes, such as those limited to particular demographic groups, it suggests.

Policy Brief author Dr Luke Martinelli explained: “These new data show quite surprising levels of support for basic income in the UK, although this falls when asked to consider UBI’s fiscal implications. Our findings are significant because there is currently very little polling data on attitudes to basic income per se, despite a number of longstanding social attitude surveys and the massive growth of interest in basic income over recent years. The data should generate interesting analysis on the political feasibility of introducing basic income in the UK – in particular, about potential constituencies of support, and the forms of basic income that appeal to different demographics – important issues about which we currently know very little.”