In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Universal Basic Income

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • History of the Idea of UBI
  • Alternative Delivery Mechanisms for UBI
  • UBI as a Program Versus UBI Architecture
  • Right-Wing Proponents
  • Left-Wing Proponents
  • Basic Income and Women
  • Basic Income Based on Dividends from Natural Resources or Public Infrastructure
  • UBI Experiments and Pilot Projects
  • Political and Public Support for UBI
  • Policy Design and Practical Implementation of UBI
  • Journals
  • Organizations

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Social Work Universal Basic Income
James P. Mulvale
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0279


Universal basic income (UBI) is an approach to income security that guarantees every individual in a political community (be it a nation or a subnational unit such as a state, province, or municipality) an unconditional and sufficient income to meet their basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and the other necessities of life. UBI differs from state-sponsored social insurance schemes that became widespread in welfare states during latter half of the 20th century. Social insurance is funded by mandatory employer and/or employee contributions, and is tied to specific events affecting workers, such as loss of paid employment, parenting a new child, or retirement from the labor force. UBI also differs from last-resort income support programs such as social assistance (often called “welfare” or “workfare”). Such programs are meant to respond to those in immediate and dire financial need. Qualifying for social assistance depends on proving one’s eligibility to government officials through an application process that is typically complicated, demeaning, and stigmatizing. Social assistance often requires certain behaviors of recipients, such as participation in life-skills training or (in the case of workfare) work in low-skill jobs at low pay. In contrast, UBI is available to everyone on an unconditional basis, with no requirement for advance contributions, no stigma attached to those receiving it, and no work or other behavioral requirements. The Basic Income Earth Network defines UBI in this way: “A basic income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.” Basic income has the following five characteristics: (1) Periodic: paid at regular intervals (for example, every month), not as a one-off grant. (2) Cash payment: paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use. (3) Individual: paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households. (4) Universal: paid to all, without a means test. (5) Unconditional: paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work. Basic income (or approximations thereof) often go by different names, such as guaranteed income, citizens’ income, unconditional cash transfer, refundable tax credits, or social dividend.

General Overviews

More than any other single figure, Philippe Van Parijs energized and framed the contemporary debate about UBI. His “left-libertarian” position understands human freedom as more than just having a formal right to make one’s own choices about work, relationships, leisure pursuits, and other aspects of life. Genuine freedom also requires an unconditional income, based on sharing our collective social wealth, so that all of us can realize the individual choices that we make (see Van Parijs 1995). Another relatively early overview of UBI was Fitzpatrick 1999, which offered various lines of argument as rationales for UBI. More recent overviews have included Van Parijs and Vanderborght 2017, Forget 2018, Standing 2019, and Haagh 2019. These later works focus less on justifications based on political theory, and more on the positive social outcomes that UBI promises, such as greater democratic equality and social inclusion and better health.

  • Fitzpatrick, Tony. 1999. Freedom and security: An introduction to the basic income debate. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780333983287

    This book presents the “basics” of UBI, the pros and cons of the model, and diverse arguments for UBI based on right-wing, welfarist, socialist, feminist, and ecological justifications.

  • Forget, Evelyn L. 2018. Basic income for Canadians: The key to a healthier, happier, and more secure life for all. Toronto: James Lorimer.

    This book presents a very readable introduction to basic income, with a focus on Canada. It describes the demogrant and negative income tax versions of UBI, and the implications of UBI for paid work, health, women, and diverse groups in society. “Nine myths” about UBI raised by its opponents are examined and debunked. The book also addresses questions to do with affordability, public and political support, and policy implementation.

  • Haagh, Louise. 2019. The case for universal basic income. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

    This book presents the case for basic income related to human and democratic development. This rationale differs from rationales based on libertarian thinking (which emphasize competition in a market society) or those based on poverty alleviation (which employ a negative income tax to target cash benefits to the poor). Basic income reform is important not only because it provides a monetary benefit, but also because it supports political stability, robust public institutions, and civic morality.

  • Standing, Guy. 2019. Everyone’s talking about basic income: Here are 8 problems it could fix. Time, 16 April.

    This opinion piece presents concise arguments on how UBI could address the problems of inequality, economic insecurity, debt, stress, precarious employment, loss of jobs due to robots and automation, extinction resulting from environmental crises, and the rise of right-wing anti-democratic populism.

  • Van Parijs, Philippe. 1995. Real freedom for all: What (if anything) can justify capitalism? Oxford UK: Clarendon Press.

    This book argues for UBI as a “real-libertarian” approach to ensure actual (not just formal) freedom for everyone. UBI is framed as a requirement of justice in inherently unequal capitalist societies, in which individuals have differing levels of natural endowments, social opportunities, and economic resources at their disposal. A basic income should be paid at the highest sustainable level funded by taxes on inherited wealth, property, and income from paid jobs (with these jobs conceived of as societal assets that are held by one person to the exclusion of others). With a UBI in place, it would be possible to ascertain which set of economic arrangements (among variants of capitalism and/or socialism) would best achieve a “maximin” threshold, ensuring that the least well off is as equal as possible with the most well off, without compromising individual freedom and collective well-being.

  • Van Parijs, Philippe, and Yannick Vanderborght. 2017. Basic income: A radical proposal for a free society and sane economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    This book is cowritten by the originator of the modern debate on UBI (Van Parijs) and someone who has examined questions to do with political and popular support for UBI and the practicalities of implementing it (Vanderborght). It emphasizes the real-libertarian justification of UBI. It also addresses possibilities for a global UBI, a multinational “Eurodividend” within the European Union, and if and how a national UBI should be offered to recent immigrants.

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