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Shaping understanding of the feasibility of Universal Basic Income

Research from Bath has helped shape understanding of the political and financial feasibility of Universal Basic Income among policymakers and the public.

Pile of coins
Universal Basic Income is a widely debated concept.

In the UK, Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a term used to describe a number of different proposals where the state would provide income for all citizens, without any conditions attached, and regardless of their other resources (according to The concept of UBI has been debated over many years.

Since 2016, Professor Nick Pearce has led on research in this area. He has supervised the work of Dr Luke Martinelli, a member of the Institute for Policy Research team at Bath.

New thinking on UBI

Much existing research into UBI is either generated by advocates of the policy, or motivated by strong opposition to it. In this context, the aim was to provide objective and impartial analysis that does not explicitly fall on either side of this debate, in order to inform policy development.

The research undertaken by Dr Martinelli explored the feasibility of UBI in three senses; Politically, Fiscally and Institutionally. It has been made up of several interrelated strands of research activity:

  1. Microsimulation analysis (used to estimate how demographic, behavioural, and policy changes might affect individual outcomes, and to better understand the effects of current policies)
  2. Analysis of public preferences on UBI (via survey data)
  3. The development of a conceptual and theoretical framework integrating UBI in literature on the comparative political economy of welfare reform.

In order to gain a holistic perspective, the research considered the challenges relating to the implementation of UBI, rather than just looking at whether or not it is desirable.

Establishing the evidence

Beginning in the UK, Dr Martinelli’s research has centred on a microsimulation-based analysis of the impacts of different types of UBI. This was later expanded to include 28 member states of the European Union (EU28), many of which had not previously taken part in research of this type.

Across the countries involved, the research has identified and explored policy design and political trade-offs in relation to UBI. In contrast to what has previously been suggested, Dr Martinelli proposed a simple framework for understanding UBI policy options as a ‘trilemma’, rather than prior suggestions that just two factors are at play. He states there is a three-way trade-off in policy design, between affordability, adequacy, and securing the full advantages of UBI as a simplification of existing welfare policy.

In order to relay the findings of his research more widely, Dr Martinelli shared an appealing soundbite with public and policy audiences – “an affordable basic income is inadequate and an adequate basic income is unaffordable” – along with the aforementioned framework.

Influencing the policy debate

Professor Nick Pearce and Dr Luke Martinelli have communicated their findings to policymakers who are developing UBI policies. These include the Welsh Government and the Estonian Ministry of Finance. The research has also stimulated wider debate and policy development in the area of UBI. Professor Pearce has advised the UK Labour Party on how UBI policies could be incorporated into the party platform and Dr Martinelli has informed research undertaken by the New Economics Foundation (NEF).

The Bath research also contributed to a background report that became a flagship World Bank report. This report was titled “Toward a New Social Contract: Taking On Distributional Tensions in Europe and Central Asia”. To inform this, Dr Martinelli, IPR doctoral candidate Joe Chrisp and IPR visiting fellow Jurgen De Wispelaere, produced a background report titled “Varieties of Basic Income: Relating Dimensions of UBI Models to Feasibility Determinants”, which guided the thinking on UBI represented in the World Bank report. Their research was acknowledged in the final version of the report.

Additionally, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, was influenced by the research, which she cited in her article in The Economist in May 2018, in her decision to fund a feasibility study into the prospect of conducting more comprehensive pilots.

‘There are also concerns about whether governments will be able to afford both UBI and a generous welfare state. As Dr Luke Martinelli noted quite succinctly in Bath University’s report for the Institute for Policy Research, “an affordable basic income would be inadequate, and an adequate basic income would be unaffordable.” A balance needs to be struck and it is an issue that Scotland would need to think very carefully about’ - Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, 2018

Improving public understanding of UBI

The IPR research on UBI has been covered in The Economist, Financial Times, Independent, Nature, New Statesman, The Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

In addition, Dr Martinelli and other IPR representatives have provided comment on UBI issues for Nature, Reuters, Wall Street Journal and Wired, as well as numerous specialist and international publications. In 2019, Dr Martinelli appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Money Box Live.

Additionally, IPR has organised or hosted 11 events relating to UBI since December 2016, with approximately 800 attendees, and IPR representatives have spoken at 16 external events on UBI to a range of audiences including policymakers and the general public, with highlights including a two-day conference in 2018 with Yonsei University (South Korea), and an all-day virtual conference in 2020 co-hosted with the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

Related groupings

Explore the associated departments and research groupings for this research.