An Opportunity for Universal Basic Income?

March 29, 2020
Coronavirus | The Economy

As the United States Congress passed a $2 trillion bill to address the financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak last week, former Presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted, “You know what would have helped before the crisis, during the crisis and after the crisis? Universal Basic Income.” Like measures applied by governments across the world to address the economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, the bill provides tax-paying residents each with a check directly from the government and has therefore brought renewed attention to the proposed policy of Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Before the 2020 Presidential Election and Andrew Yang’s candidacy, UBI was a somewhat obscure issue. In the most notable plebiscite on the issue up until then, Swiss voters in a referendum in 2016 had overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for the constitutional right to a basic income. Even while Yang’s rise and unexpected longevity in the 2020 Democratic primaries has brought further popularity to the idea, many still expected that some time would pass before the United States or any major European country actually adopted UBI.

And yet, here we are. In the United Kingdom, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has announced sweeping measures to cover the wages of employees and self-employed workers for up to £2,500 a month per worker. This measure has been met with overwhelming support. In the United States, the Government is now sending $1,200 per adult, with an additional $500 per child in a family. We polled respondents in the United States prior to the latest Congressional bill but found that most members of the public similarly overwhelmingly supported the idea of the US Government making a one-time payment to its residents. 

However, a majority of respondents to our poll thought the amount given should be $1500 or more, possibliy suggesting that the current amount allotted to directly pay US residents may not be seen as enough by the public.

And, if such a payment was forthcoming, they thought such it should be made to everyone as soon as possible, rather than based on need with some delay, rebuffing criticisms from some Congressional Representatives who thought the payment should go specifically to those who demonstrated a need for it.

Nevertheless, we must cautiously note that the bill passed last week by the United States Government contains several other measures, including significantly large bailouts to several corporations and business. While respondents to our poll may indeed support the particular aspect of the bill that provides direct payments to residents, a future poll may potentially find members of the public to be against the bill in its entirety.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, respondents to our polls in France, Italy and Spain were also equally enthusiastic about the idea of a one-time cheque from the Government during this time of crisis. Particularly in the countries that are hardest hit: Italy and Spain, was there widespread support for such a measure.

Perhaps suggestive of the lower cost of living, respondents generally thought a payment of €1,000 or less would suffice.

By the time we had conducted our polls in Europe, however, these countries had already enacted strong fiscal measures to combat the economic crisis that will follow. In Spain, for instance, a program called an ERTE allows companies to temporarily lay-off its workers and have those workers be compensated directly by the government. Since the crisis has it, companies across Spain have applied for more than a million workers.

Across all five countries that we polled between the 22nd and 24th of March, we saw significant support for Universal Basic Income outside of the present crisis, with outright majorities in Spain and the United Kingdom and pluralities in Italy, France and the United States supporting the policy.

And the public in all five countries showed a greater willingness to vote for a candidate or party that included the policy in its platform.

A caveat: significant portions of the public in all five countries said they were neither more nor less likely to vote for a UBI-platform, suggesting that most have simply not made up their minds on the issue, or at most, do not see the issue as a priority.

Therefore, as members of the public begin to receive their cheques directly from their Governments to their households, their thinking around UBI will develop. From the evidence of their own experience, they will begin to answer questions, such as: Could it work? Would it be sustainable? Would it improve the economy?

The evidence from our poll suggests that people are altogether welcoming to the idea of UBI. Proponents should thus see this crisis as an opportunity for their cause.

This poll is part of Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ ongoing research into public opinion on the coronavirus outbreak and government’s reaction to the crisis. Further results from our polling in the UK, USA, Italy, France, Spain and Germany is featured here.


Data tables for this research can be found here. To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.