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Baby Steps on the Road to a Basic Income

By Socrates Schouten

Seven Dutch towns and cities are beginning experiments with versions of a ‘basic income light’. Some of those in favour are disappointed by the restrictions raised by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. One municipality decided to ignore those restrictions: Amsterdam. As happens so often, it decided to determine its own course. Socrates Schouten talked with three advocates spearheading the project.

Never again having to toil away for a monthly wage, never again having to accept lousy jobs, and a free choice to develop yourself according to your own desires. Those are only some of the benefits ascribed to basic income. Often conceived as an unconditional, monthly income of a solid 1,000 euros for adult citizens, the basic income is a tantalising idea that has been discussed considerably in recent years. Certainly in the Netherlands; the land not only of freethinkers, but also of Calvinism, and a strong advocate of the notion of ‘individual responsibility’. Experiments will be carried out in the Netherlands in the coming three years, albeit under the very strictly curtailed conditions that may be expected from the Dutch political system based on big coalitions, known as ‘consensus land’.

In effect it’s not actually basic income experiments that will take place. It’s just that rules around benefit payments are being relaxed – very carefully. Since 2015 the ‘Participation Act’ has regulated people’s access to benefits when they are unable (temporarily) to support themselves with paid work. The act was formulated in line with the outlook that everyone who is at all capable of doing so should do ‘generally accepted work’. Those on supplementary benefit have to apply for vacancies and regularly get to do something in return: a simple job or voluntary work they have to do approximately one day a week. “Work”, in the words of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, “offers the best social security”.

The Participation Act allowed several large city experiments to take off: these were monitored experiments which relaxed some income-support terms. Since the Netherlands moved towards decentralising its social security system, towns and cities have taken the initiative. It is no surprise that larger towns and cities have sprung into action: they have a larger professional capacity and more unemployed citizens than smaller ones. Besides, they are more likely to have left-wing town councils, although it’s not always left-wing parties taking the initiative. But the framework for the experiments had to be determined by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, who did it half-heartedly. Sjir Hoeijmakers, an independent activist and lobbyist for basic income experiments, describes the six municipal experiments that have started in consultation with the ministry as having ‘crept through the bottleneck’.

The participating towns and cities formulated two or three ‘options’ with varying degrees of freedom, such as the possibility for people to earn extra money in addition to their supplementary benefit. Those on supplementary benefit applied for the experiment and were divided among the groups at random. The first three experiments started in the towns of Tilburg, Wageningen, and Deventer in October. At the end of that month registration ended for the joint experiment being launched in the municipalities of Groningen and Ten Boer, while registration in the town of Nijmegen started early December. The Utrecht experiment has not been voted on by the city council yet, but will probably be approved.

A disappointing result but a result nevertheless

“Some 40 municipalities have considered doing something with this, often it was an alderman or a councillor who put it forward,” Hoeijmakers says. “At one point 20 councils were seriously considering it. On the way quite a few pulled out because it took too long or because they weren’t happy with the leeway offered. The statutory instrument regulating the experiments is quite disappointing, I must say.”

April Ranshuijsen, the local Green Left party leader in Nijmegen, was involved in the plans from the outset. “To me it has been a hell of a trajectory. That we’ve made it to where we are now is a miracle in that respect. It’s a big plus that we can now begin to try out various options in terms of the supplementary benefit regime. But if you look at the original idea, then very little is left of it.”

One of the issues that apparently caused great difficulty is the potential number of participating towns and cities. At a certain point the government limited that number to four. Nijmegen, one of the initiators, was eliminated somewhere along the way because of what the ministry called “a highly red-tape technicality”. Thanks to a motion by Green Left member of parliament Linda Voortman the maximum number of participating municipalities was extended to 25, Nijmegen being one of them.

But many other variables have been firmly curtailed. The experiments are allowed to last only two years within a general timeframe of the national scheme of three years. Participants whose obligation to job-search is terminated still have to show they’re making an effort to find a job, otherwise they are at risk of elimination from the trial group. The group entitled to earn money in addition to receiving supplementary benefit may only earn 199 euros a month. And lastly the government demands an additional ‘experimental group’ of participants receiving intensified counselling to help them find a job. Hoeijmakers explains: “All these things have been added by the ministry, not the municipalities themselves. They were added quite politically. A majority in Parliament indicated it wanted ambitious experiments, but the cabinet – particularly the conservative liberals from the VVD (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) – was not taken in by the idea and dug in its heels.” April Ranshuijsen adds that it’s “very disappointing. You just can’t experiment with the things you’d want to experiment with without considering the wider project.”

‘Basis income’ framing: clumsy or clever?

In the past three years Sjir Hoeijmakers has advised municipalities and acted as a mediator between researchers, local politicians, and national parties. Interestingly, he says, some politicians involved used the phrase ‘basic income’ enthusiastically, while others prefer to talk about an ‘experiment of trust’ or about a ‘relaxed supplementary benefit scheme’. The recent international attention for basic income has certainly animated the discussion, Hoeijmakers claims, while scaring off others. Specifically the book Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman has contributed to a lively debate in the Netherlands. Hoeijmakers: “Calling it utopian was a risky type of framing. In the media, basic income is often illustrated with images of people dancing in a shower of free money.” But the debate ignited by the book has made Bregman effective as a promoter of basic income, increasingly outside the Netherlands. His two TED talks together have been viewed half a million times.

Hoeijmakers is not for or against a basic income at all costs – what exactly is it? – rather, he’s first and foremost a firm advocate of experiments. “I try to evade a black-and-white debate. There is not just one basic income; all kinds of ideas are doing the rounds. We must admit that we don’t know which forms of basic income will work adequately and which will work less well or even backfire. Polarisation between those for and against leads to the process stalling. Experiments, however, will bring a lot of people together. Self-confessed opponents are already proving less opposed and e those in favour are prepared to talk about the nuances.”

You can’t tell in advance who is against and who is in favour. The local Labour Party in Nijmegen is a bitter opponent, while in Leeuwarden it is solidly in favour. Often the Green Left took the initiative, but sometimes they were more cautious, as is the case in Wageningen.

The social liberals of D66 are in line with the Green Left. And sometimes, as in Tilburg, the initiative came from the Christian democrat CDA. But on the whole it’s the progressive left-wing parties pushing the experiments, with the VVD against most of the time, with some local exceptions. That has to do with the Dutch basic income debate, Hoeijmakers thinks. “In Finland the frame is very different: there the tone is more businesslike, about a more transparent, more effective, more motivational system to find a job. There, it’s more the centre parties that are doing something about basic income.”

We have to admit that that we don’t know which forms of basic income will work adequately and which will work less well or even backfire.

Asked about his political strategy, Rutger Groot Wassink, the Green Left party leader in the Amsterdam city council and one of the initiators of the experiments, says: “Well, businesslike, transparent, effective, efficient… Those are the arguments for convincing the conservative liberals in the VVD. I like to cross swords about the basic income. A lot of people get provoked by the very idea. Those within the VVD really think it’s abominable. I’m fond of seeking out that kind of conflict; regarding this topic I’m all for polarisation. Within the Green Left it’s already difficult to get support for a radical socio-economic agenda, no matter how long we’ve been trying to pull this off.”

‘Thou shalt work’

For Groot Wassink the experiments are a means to reduce the “pressing link between labour and income. The Netherlands has a very Calvinist work ethic: you have a duty to work. Paid work is a blessing in society. I advocate the idea of the relaxed society: the link between work and income has to be slackened. Care within the family, care for children, voluntary aid: they are all undervalued because all that counts is paid work. We really have to rid ourselves of that idea.”

Groot Wassink is diametrically opposed to Maarten Struijvenberg, who is in charge of employment and the economy in Rotterdam’s for Employment and the Economy. In Rotterdam the ‘reciprocity need’ (explained below) has been standing policy since 2015 for people on supplementary benefit. A TV programme interviewed a number of Rotterdam citizens who lost their jobs and were sent into the streets to collect rubbish. For Struijvenberg, “When you’re on supplementary benefit any job is a good job. … It is good for people to realise that any job is a good job when you’re on supplementary benefit. And for that realisation, collecting rubbish works just as well.”

The ‘reciprocity need’ is an element in the Participation Act, one which many municipalities are not happy with, according to Hoeijmakers. Many see no point in getting their clients on supplementary benefits to work for a couple of hours every week. But they have a lot of freedom about whether or not to bring the reciprocity principle into action in their area. “It actually didn’t play a large role in the discussion about basic income-like experiments, until it became a political and – particularly – a symbolic issue. If a municipality does not take reciprocity need into its regulation, it may not participate. It’s all a bit vague: the municipal executive must take it up in its policy, but may choose not to impose it. But you have to have it in your toolbox as a tool.” Groot Wassink explains that “State secretary and junior minister Klijnsma ordered us to include the reciprocity measure in our regulation. We refuse to do so. A council majority does not believe in reciprocity. And it’s quite absurd to adopt a regulation and then not carry it out.” Arjen Vliegenthart (Socialist Party) too is incensed by the junior minister’s stance. In a Dutch paper he announced: “The junior minister can forget it. We’re going ahead with the experiment anyhow.”

The Amsterdam trial, which starts in February of 2018, has no strings attached such as the requirement to look for a job. Similarly, there won’t be a reciprocity need in the regulation, nor will there be a group with intensified counselling. Groot Wassink clarifies that: “We feel the law offers that space. The junior minister can start legal proceedings or impose an administrative fine if she wants to.”

Do these experiments actually make sense?

But do the experiments with supplementary benefit reveal anything about the basic income, considering they have been so modified? Sjir Hoeijmakers: “Experiments are limited, but not useless. You need political will and a good team of researchers and administrative backup. That’s why it’s such a pity that the Dutch scheme has been devised so defensively. In other countries there are fantastic, well-devised experiments: good research setup, sufficient capacity, general consensus. There’s a lot of diversity in terms of ideas and setups so that various approaches are being tried out. Besides Finland you have the Canadian federal state of Ontario. They are registering people for an experiment that is much broader, with a more refined look, with a kind of negative income tax. That trial will not only affect the unemployed but low-wage earners as well. Researchers will look at health, well-being, and at how people deal with it on a social level. And in the western part of the US the initiative came from Silicon Valley. The idea there is to give 1,000 people from all ranks of life in two states 1,000 dollars a month for a period of three to five years. And in many regions in Europe too, something is brewing.”

April Ranshuijsen, party leader for the Green Left in Nijmegen, will be using basic income during the next election campaign as a source of inspiration for municipal social policy. “But not in any dogmatic manner. I don’t think we should harbour any illusions about introducing a basic income locally. I think we must look at the ends, which are more important than the means. The aim to me is to treat people on supplementary benefit or on other forms of support equally and constructively. Right now they are treated very much on the basis of constraints and sanctions. I’d rather work on the basis of trust and reciprocity. Our election manifesto states that there should be more experiments in the field of work and income. We could dedicate ourselves more intensively to extra training, fine tune counselling, do trial projects with social investors, etc. I’m not saying that it’s the ultimate solution, but I’m interested in trying things out and getting the best out of them.”

Baby Steps on the Road to a Basic Income