Finland Has a New Social Experiment: Giving People Free Money

Two thousand unemployed Finns will now get around $594 a month—whether they get jobs or not

For 2,000 Finns, free money is now a thing. andrej_k/iStock

This year, Finland is putting together an ambitious social experiment to see whether a universal basic income might some day be feasible. Starting on January 1, 2000 unemployed Finnish people between 25 and 58 years of age started to receive an income of €560 (about $594) per month, As The Guardian’s Jon Henley reports.

According to one cost-of-living calculator, that’s just shy of half the cost of a furnished, 900-square-foot apartment in Helsinki. According to the Finnish government, the point of the program is to demonstrate how a basic income might affect employment and help determine whether the country’s social security system should be reformed. The pilot program will last for two years and the outcomes of the recipients will be studied and compared to a control group.

The money will be paid whether or not the recipients find employment, but there’s a catch: It will replace some of their existing social benefits. And though it’s been criticized by some as too limited, it is breaking new ground. Only a handful of  countries have dabbled with the idea of basic incomes thus far, and most experiments have been small. And though the concept of universal income has been gaining steam, it’s not universally popular: Last year, for example, 77 percent of Swiss voters said “nein” to the concept of paying over $2,500 a month to adults, whether they were working or not.

The concept of a universal income is hardly new: Its advocates date back to the Enlightenment. One noteworthy experiment with basic income was carried out in a town in Manitoba, Canada, in the 1970s. As CBC News reports, the “Mincome” experiment gave 30 percent of residents of Dauphin a guaranteed income, and the results were impressive. Accidents, injuries and hospitalizations declined. A review of a similar experiments in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s showed that though basic minimum incomes slightly reduced work effort, those effects were balanced out by higher school attendance.

Not everyone agrees that it’s good to give people free money, but Finland’s experiments could fuel both the pros and cons of the universal basic income argument. Given projections that soon machines will replace human workers at an even higher rate, the concept of a basic income is becoming popular among those who argue it will help sustain those whose jobs are eliminated. But in the U.S., the prospects of seeing widespread basic income experiments in the coming years seem slender indeed.

Never fear, though: If you crave to be paid just for existing, you can apply for at least one crowdfunded basic income program and see if you’re lucky enough to get it. But until the idea is proven out on a large scale, it’s unlikely it will ever be more than a dream for most.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.