As Tech Takes Jobs, Govts Debate Guaranteed Income

For basic income advocates, the time is now. For everyone else, as new tech takes over old jobs, it might be soon enough.

The robots are coming for our jobs. Someday, they'll take the wheel from human truckers, the plow from human farmers, the scalpel from human surgeons and maybe even the paintbrush from artists. But how exactly will society cope with the transition of jobs from human to machine hands?

The answer to that could be a basic income, a stipend provided by the state as a social safety net for displaced workers. In fact, President Barack Obama even weighed in on the idea of a basic income in a recent interview with Wired. "Whether a universal income is the right model - is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people? - that's a debate that we'll be having over the next 10 or 20 years," Obama said.

The argument for a universal basic income has been rekindled lately by futurists, technologists and policymakers alike concerned with the labor force of the future. But as a concept, basic income dates back almost a century.

Traditionally, basic income proposals and their derivatives, such as Social Security, weren't so much about technological displacement of workers as they are measures for combating labor market instability, alleviating poverty, improving public health and compensating for unpaid work, such as care-giving.

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Looking at both conditions in the present as well as experimenting with models for the future, a handful of governments around the world have explored the idea of a universal or needs-based basic income. To be clear, basic income is different from welfare, heavily regulated government programs with extensive requirements and strings attached to money provided the needy. A basic income generally comes without preconditions.

In Ontario, one of the first pilot programs in North America aimed at providing a basic income to those in need is due to begin next year. In fact, Canada first experimented with the idea in the 1970s, Sheila Regehr, chairperson of the Basic Income Canada Network, tells Seeker. Canada also has experience with similar social programs, both of which began at the provincial level before going national, for seniors and for children.

This upcoming pilot is aimed at individuals struggling with job precariousness, food security or other financial hardships, and the desired results of this effort and those that would follow on a larger scale include "improved health outcomes for people, improved child outcomes in education... improved social functioning, and better inclusion in all sorts of things from democratic process to community involvement," Regehr said.

Certainly the possibility of technological displacement resonates with an increasingly anxious workforce, which partly explains why the issue is gaining public support from individuals and organizations across the political spectrum.

"For the general population, for people who read about how many truck drivers are going to be displaced, how many high-end professional jobs medical fields could be displaced, I think they are concerned even though they still see that as a little far out," Regehr said.

"People on the ground now though are feeling the impacts of precarious employment that has technical aspects but is there for lots of other reasons as well," Regher added.

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Finland also has plans for experimenting with a basic income provision in 2017. The government will randomly select 2,000 current recipients of unemployment benefits to receive 560 euros ($602) per month. The experiment and follow-up research aim to find out whether providing a basic income can move more people back into the labor market, compared with those receiving other state benefits, according to a statement by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.

The focus again is job precariousness, an increasingly far-reaching concern in the future as technology further encroaches on jobs performed by humans.

In June of this year, Swiss citizens voted on what would have been a true universal basic income for all of its people, with supporters of the measure aiming for a monthly stipend of 2,555 francs ($2,560). The plan was overwhelmingly rejected by 77 percent, but the effort was still a milestone in that it marked the first time in history any country held such a vote.

The concept of a basic income isn't just a policy being explored in wealthy nations. Emerging markets, where two-thirds of jobs are threatened by the prospect of technological displacement, according to U.N. report published last week, also have reasons both in the present and future to experiment with basic incomes.

In Kenya, a country where thousands live on less than a dollar a day, an effort spearheaded by the nonprofit GiveDirectly announced a $30 million dollar plan to combat through the provision of direct aid to 6,000 for 10 to 15 years.

"At worst that money will shift the life trajectories of thousands of low-income households," GiveDirectly co-founders Michael Faye and Paul Niehaus wrote on Slate earlier this year. "At best, it will change how the world thinks about ending poverty."

For basic income advocates, who see an opportunity to alleviate the concerns of those in immediate need, the time for these programs is now. But the results of these pilot programs could very well inform future policy. And as new technology takes over old jobs, what is just an experiment now could be a necessity in the future.

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Photo: Swiss activists dump 8 million coins in a public square in Bern in support of the Swiss basic income referendum. Credit: Stefan Bohrer/Creative Commons