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an unconditional transfer

1. The Universal Basic Income

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GEOMETR.IT  bruegel.org

*What’s at stake: the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), an unconditional transfer paid to each individual, was prominent earlier this year when Finland announced a pilot project. It’s now back in the discussion as the OECD published a report illustrating costs and distributional implications for selected countries. We review the most recent contributions on this topic.

BY: SILVIA MERLER DATE: JUNE 12, 2017 TOPIC: EUROPEAN MACROECONOMICS

The OECD recently published a policy brief and a methodological note looking into the cost and benefits of adopting Basic Income (BI) as a policy option. The simplest way of introducing a BI would be to take existing cash benefits paid to those of working age and to spread total expenditure on these benefits equally across all those aged below normal retirement age.

The resulting BI amount would be very much lower than the poverty line for a single individual. Therefore, without any additional taxes, a budget-neutral BI will be very far from eradicating poverty.

Source: OECD

*A perhaps less ambitious alternative may be to use the levels of guaranteed minimum-income benefits (GMI) in existing social protection system as an initial target value for a BI. However, many individuals receive benefits other than a GMI to pay for additional costs for specific needs that they have and they would lose out even more from a flat-rate BI. So it would be likely desirable to retain some targeted cash transfers, but this would require even greater reductions of BI amounts if expenditures are to be kept at current levels. Thus a BI at socially and politically meaningful levels would likely require additional benefit expenditures, and thus higher tax revenues to finance them.

The OECD  simulations for four countries (Finland, France, Italy and the UK) show that although a universal basic income is simple, existing benefits are not, and replacing them with a single flat rate benefit produces complex patterns of gains and losses.

Those receiving social insurance benefits would normally lose out from the replacement of those with a universal basic income at GMI levels.

Those not qualifying from any social benefit under existing policies would benefit as long as the increase in benefits exceeds the corresponding increase in their taxes.

Lower-income households are more likely to receive means-tested income support so they are actually less likely to gain from a BI set at a similar level to GMl.

Source: OECD

Robert Greenstein at the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities looked specifically at the case of the US, for which Charles Murray proposed that every citizen age 21 and older could get a $13,000 annual grant deposited electronically into a bank account in monthly installments, $3000 of which should be used for health insurance, leaving every adult with $10,000 in disposable annual income for the rest of their lives.

Greenstein points out that with over 300 million Americans today, an UBI of $10,000 a year would cost more than $3 trillion a year. This single-year figure equals more than three-fourths of the entire yearly federal budget and it’s also equal to close to 100 percent of all tax revenue the federal government collects.

UBI’s financing challenges raise fundamental questions about its political feasibility, both now and in coming decades. UBI’s supporters generally propose UBI as a replacement for the current “welfare state”, which may  increase poverty and inequality rather than reduce them. Some UBI proponents may argue that by ending current programs, we would reap large administrative savings that we could convert into UBI payments. But Greenstein thinks that’s mistaken because the major means-tested programs – SNAP, Medicaid, the EITC, housing vouchers, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and school meals – administrative costs consume only 1 to 9 percent of program resources, and their funding goes overwhelmingly to boost the incomes and purchasing power of low-income families.

Berk Ozler at the World Bank refers to a paper by van de Walle, Ravallion and Brown, who examine the best methods available for targeting poor people to see how they would fare in reducing poverty. The policies evaluated include a universal basic income, targeting on the basis of basic proxy-means tests (PMT), improvements to PMT they propose, and some simple categorical targeting options (such as targeting the elderly, children, widows, etc.).

They find that these would reduce poverty by less than 25% depending on the choice of poverty measure. Universal Basic Income (UBI) would reduce the Headcount Index by 14.5 percent. Categorical targeting performs very similarly to UBI.

They do significantly better when caring about distribution-sensitive measures of poverty (43 percent reduction in the Poverty Gap) – but only assuming an improvement upon the common PMT methods by using poverty quantile regressions or means from panel data when available. The difference between the performance of UBI and the best targeting method looks small. But that is a little deceiving: in a country of 25 million people, such as Cameroon, reducing the Headcount Index from 17.1% to 15.4% allows close to half a million people escape poverty.

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