People Are Actually Pretty Into The Idea Of A Universal Basic Income

Though, problematically, less so when they actually know what it is.

The idea of a universal basic income (UBI)–giving every citizen a cash payment to keep them out of poverty–was fairly fringe until recently, the sort of thing discussed just by obscure think-tanks and people in Alaska. But with fears over automation and the future of work widening, UBI is moving up the agenda, and small experiments with it are taking place around the world. And in the U.S., it turns out, more and more Americans are familiar with the concept, and almost half are willing to support it, according to a new survey.


The poll comes from the Economic Security Project, a new UBI campaign group backed by 100 activists, academics and journalists (we wrote about it here). An amazing 46% of respondents back a UBI, 35% oppose UBI, and 19% are undecided. A quarter of all people know “quite a bit” or “some” about UBI, 22% “just a little”; 51% said they know nothing about UBI.

“Despite the popularity of UBI in certain circles, the public at large has not been discussing the concept,” says a summary of the results. “It is necessary to raise awareness among the general public for UBI to be politically viable in the coming decades.” The research was conducted by political consultants 50+1 Strategies and David Binder Research, and had 500​ participants​ (250 phone, 250 online)​.

The consultants explored what sort of language most engages people on UBI. Arguments about reducing poverty were most convincing, while those about creeping automation were less appealing (though that may just be because not enough people have had their job taken by a robot yet).

People who opposed UBI did so because they thought it might make people lazy and because it’s likely to be very expensive (estimates for the U.S. are well in excess of $2 trillion a year). They don’t think people should get money unconditionally (in pure versions of UBI, people wouldn’t be asked to do anything in return, a check would just show up).

The researchers note that issues like marriage equality, minimum wage increases, and marijuana legislation started with less positive support than UBI has now. It’s in a good position to build backing in cities and states before branching out further. “We believe that the local-first strategy could be a promising way to build support for UBI,” they say.

[Illustration: Gleb_Guralnyk/iStock]

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.