Daniel Bockwoldt / AP

Dutch cities to experiment with universal cash benefits

The concept of a state-provided flatrate basic income for all shows signs of life in Europe, against all odds

A month after the Dutch city of Utrecht announced it would test a government program that guarantees income to all citizens, seven other towns in the Netherlands are considering similar initiatives, as the perennially fringe idea gains a bit of momentum across Europe.

The government of Tilburg, the Netherlands’ sixth-largest city, announced earlier this month its intention to follow Utrecht in setting up a pilot program to test the viability of a so-called universal basic income program (UBI). Six other towns are reportedly considering their own such experiments.

State-funded UBI programs give a set amount of cash to every resident of a particular city or nation, delivered in regular installments with no strings attached. Although none has yet been implemented on a nationwide scale, other countries have, stretching back decades, run localized pilot programs with similar intentions to UBI.  For example, in the small Canadian town of Dauphin, Manitoba, the city’s poorest residents received unconditional cash transfers from 1974 to 1979.

In Tilburg, just 250 people would initially have access to UBI benefits. In Utrecht, all current welfare recipients would have the option of taking part in the trial. The exact value of the disbursement in Tilburg has yet to be settled, but it would range between 900 and 1,300 euros per month in Utrecht, depending on the size of the household.

How UBI programs are implement can vary wildly from scenario to scenario. Basic income payments can take the form of anything from a "negative income tax" applied to everyone's tax returns to a check from the government sent to all households.

Bouts of experimentation aside, UBI has always been widely viewed as a fringe idea. But it has gained some traction in Western Europe over the past few years, even as other social spending programs have been curtailed. The most dramatic recent political success for UBI took place in Switzerland (which, unlike the Netherlands, is not a European Union member state). Advocates there successfully forced a national referendum set for 2016 on the whether to implement of guaranteed cash transfers.

The UBI concept has also found some support among left-wing parties such as the Finnish Greens and Podemos, the radical party that has recently come to prominence in Spain. However, Podemos appears to be moving away from the idea and toward a less-ambitious guaranteed income program with a built-in work requirement.

But those ideas are largely confined to the left at a time when the political momentum has long been away from dramatic expansions of the welfare state. Critics of UBI on the right and center-left often cite the possibility that unconditional payments could disincentivize work as a reason for opposing the policy.

One issue is that implementing UBI would by definition expand social safety nets to include all immigrants in a given community, bucking an overall trend in European social policy toward limiting benefits for all but fully assimilated residents.

The recent rumblings of support for UBI stand in stark contrast to that trend, political scientist Edward Koning at Canada's University of Guelph told Al Jazeera.

“Lots of countries are experiencing some sort of retrenchment or restructuring of their welfare state,” he said. That includes the Netherlands, where the curtailing of some social benefits has been accompanied by some anti-immigrant sentiment.

“There has been a backlash against multiculturalism in other European countries as well, but in the Netherlands it’s been particularly pronounced,” Koning said.

But the chances that UBI implementation will become a common practice in the Netherlands are relatively low, Koning said.

“I don’t see a universal basic income as a very realistic outcome,” he said. “At least not in the immediate future."

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