In Brief
  • In a survey of 500 people of various ages, 46 percent of respondents were in favor of the idea of a universal basic income, 35 percent opposed, and 19 percent undecided.
  • A UBI system could be the best, most practical way to deal with the widespread unemployment likely to follow the continued automation of jobs currently held by people.

Promising Support

A small study was recently conducted to get an idea for how Americans feel about a universal basic income (UBI), a no-strings-attached, unconditional income given to individuals. The survey of 500 people was conducted by 50+1 Strategies and David Binder Research on behalf of the Economic Security Project. The results of the survey showed that 46 percent of respondents were in favor of the idea, along with 35 percent opposed and 19 percent undecided.

There has been a strong uptick in conversations about UBI recently, especially in the wake of some high-profile tests of the program being announced in Canada, Kenya, and Finland, among other places. Some experts even see the shift to UBI as an inevitability. “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation,” tech industry titan Elon Musk has said. “Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen.”

As robots and artificial intelligence (AI) get better at performing tasks formerly reserved for humans, the threat of mass job loss grows. Outsourcing jobs overseas was a major talking point in the past presidential election in the United States, and the current president-elect is promising to bring those companies back to the country. However, with increasing automation, those companies many not have as many jobs to offer.

The debate has even gotten to the point where the sitting president of the United States was asked in an interview about the potential for a UBI system. “Whether a universal income is the right model — is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people? — that’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years,” Obama noted.

universal basic income automation job security
Credit: Bart van Overbeeke / Shutterstock

The Devil in the Details

The beginnings of that debate are already forming, and breaking down the numbers generated by the survey unveils some very interesting thoughts surrounding the issue.

Once respondents were given some specifics on the policy, support eroded. The aspects that were least favorable included not having the money tied to work, full autonomy with regard to how the money is to be spent, and that the funds for the program would come from tax revenue.

Some critics of UBI cite the inciting of laziness as a major argument against it. As Misha Chellam of the startup-training company Tradecraft explains to CNBC, “The laziness argument is one that has hamstrung welfare and safety net efforts for decades.” However, empirical evidence that welfare programs promote laziness simply does not exist.

Further support for UBI could hinge on how it is presented. The survey found that referring to the program as “social security for all” was received more favorably than when it was called universal basic income. However it is framed, UBI must be carefully considered as a realistic way to deal with the massive unemployment on the horizon due to the rise of automation.