Researchers Learn from UBI Pilots around the World

Soomi Lee

Many pilot programs are being implemented in U.S. cities and some states. What do we learn from all these pilot programs and what new questions have they raised? Researchers in Portugal and Spain interviewed many stakeholders in the past pilots and experiments around the world in the U.S., Canada, India, Namibia, Finland, Spain, Kenya, Macau, Brazil, and the Netherlands. In Basic Income Experiments: A Critical Examination of their Goals, Contexts, and Methods (2022), Robert Merrill, Catarina Neves, and Bru Laín examine lessons from the interviews, new questions raised by them, and how to answer those new questions. I interviewed one of the co-authors of the book, Catarina Neves. Here’s the interview. 

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 Soomi Lee: Please introduce yourself.

Catarina Neves: My name is Catarina Neves. I’m a Ph.D. researcher at the Center for Ethics, Politics, and Society at the University of Minho where I’m studying unconditional basic income and reciprocity. I’ve been studying this topic for the last three years. I’m currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Guaranteed Income Research from the University of Pennsylvania.

 Soomi Lee: Tell me about the team. How did you start the project?

Catarina Neves: I joined the team when the project had already started. The team wanted to connect UBI pilot programs and compare them to provide useful information for future experiments. We wanted to make a meaningful contribution to existing attempts to share the insights from basic income experiments. We believed that listening to people who were engaged in UBI pilots would tell us new insights. So, we took a bottom-up strategy for the book.  

Soomi Lee: Please tell us why your team wrote this book.

Catarina Neves: In the beginning, it was exploratory. We asked interviewees lots of questions about the design, motivation, results of their pilot programs. But our underlying question always has been why we have basic income experiments. We knew from the onset that the different experiments don’t have the prototype features of a basic income that is universal and unconditional. If they choose to have a randomized controlled trial, they have to have control and treatment groups, which obviously means that it’s not universal. Or if everyone in a village could receive a UBI, then often the amount of UBI does not fit within the concept of allowing a life with dignity, right? It was clear as we started interviews that UBI experiments are mostly targeted cash transfers usually to low-income individuals, but all of them shared the core feature of an unconditional cash grant, which means all of them were obligations-free.

We ended up with a very obvious but difficult question. Do basic income experiments lead us to a UBI? The stakeholders we interviewed were mostly researchers who were involved in UBI experiments. That meant that a lot of the conversation was about the methodology. People usually think that the methodologies and design of UBI experiments are purely research-based. But a big part of the decisions on methodology and design is politics. For example, in the Barcelona experiment, researchers wanted to conduct a universal experiment including people from all income levels. But politicians wanted to avoid criticism for giving money to people who were not poor. They wanted to go for a targeted experiment because that was more politically feasible. Pilots usually have to focus on lower-income people to be politically feasible.

 Soomi Lee: What are the main findings?

Catarina Neves: There are so many. So, I will highlight a few. Most of the things are what many of us already know. UBI leads to lower stress and increased welfare and happiness. We know what’s going to happen when low-income individuals have more income, but it’s important to highlight it, nonetheless.

We found that we still don’t have much information about labor market participation, even though it has received a lot of attention. We argue in the book that the effects of UBI on labor market participation is probably something that we won’t be able to answer with an experiment since most experiments run for a short period and do not include everyone in a given place, which makes it difficult to assess the impacts in the labor market.

We also discussed how some things are salient in experiments but did not receive as much attention. Empowerment, for example. I remember in the interview with Sarah Davala from Madhya Pradesh. UBI Impacts the most vulnerable populations in a community, and this is not necessarily only for those impoverished. The impact was found in gender relations in higher-income households. Women in a higher income level wanted to participate in the project because they wanted to be financially independent. Community empowerment is also a common finding and UBI seems to increase institutional trust.

In terms of research methodology, we endorse mixed methods. Many cases focused only on quantitative methods. For example, in institutional trust in Finland, we could have known much more if researchers used mixed methods. We also recommend engaging more stakeholders including politicians, nonprofits, participants, and communities.

Experiments could be useful for political implementation, but we know that’s not the case. It’s a big “maybe.” But they can be used for other purposes such as promoting advocacy and political mobilization towards a basic income.

Soomi Lee: You mentioned “political implementation.” What are your thoughts about scalability?  

Catarina Neves: I think in some contexts, especially in places where you have strong a welfare system, we need to start with something gradual. I’m not sure if the targeted or universal approach is the best, but we can start with a small amount. We need to give people a sense of what an unconditional cash grant is and can do. After people start to understand the impacts, then we can progressively increase the amount.

Soomi Lee:  What’s your next step forward?

Catarina Neves: We are now applying for a second project where we are going to dwell more on the discussion about the costs of an additional basic income and the potential economic benefits of implementing a UBI. We also have been engaging in trying to have a pilot in Portugal too.

Soomi Lee: Thank you for your time, Catarina. Good luck with your next endeavor.

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Catarina provided her team’s presentation about the book for anyone to download. Here’s the PowerPoint slide deck: UBI Experiments Book Presentation. She graciously shared her email with our audience. Her email address is ana.neves_2@hotmail.com. 

If you want to contribute to the blog, please contact me (Soomi Lee) at slee4@laverne.edu. 

Please consider becoming a member at USBIG or volunteering for us! USBIG is an all-volunteer group that focuses on compiling and sharing information about the Basic Income Guarantee. We welcome anyone interested in helping us with this mission to volunteer. 

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