Do Australians support a universal basic income?

The Green Institute recently published the results of a poll claiming that 58% of Australians now support a universal basic income. The ABC article reporting the poll supposes the result to be influenced by Australia’s experience of welfare payments during the COVID-19 pandemic, because the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) taken prior to the pandemic found only 43% of people in favour of a universal basic income.

Speaking for myself, I have indeed wondered if welfare payments could be rethought based on our experience of the pandemic. For one, the pandemic illustrated on a grand scale how people can lose their livelihoods through no fault of of their own. For another, it gave some insight into how people might make use their time when they don’t feel compelled to spend forty hours a week in paid work. What response would we design in the general case, if we weren’t responding to an emergency?

The most obvious weakness of the Green Institute poll is that it doesn’t appear to have asked about how people would feel about paying the taxes required to fund a universal basic income. The AuSSA survey did mention taxes, albeit only in passing, and one could conjecture that the change from 43% to 58% simply had to do with the way the question was phrased. Still, even 43% is a very significant proportion.

Nor does the Green Institute survey compare Australians’ preferences for a universal basic income with their preferences for alternatives like job guarantees, reduced working hours, negative income taxes, or the “living income guarantee” described by John Quiggin and others in one pandemic-inspired welfare reform proposal. To be fair, a question that asked all of these things would be a pretty horrible one, but I’m sure sociologists have ways of dealing with this.

The AuSSA survey also reports some data on how people might use their time, but it’s not obvious to me that a universal basic income would of necessity reduce the amount of time that we spend working, since many jobs might continue to be offered on a full-time or nothing basis. And anyone fearing that a universal basic income might make us lazy could point to the results implying that only 35% of people would continue to work as many or more hours as they do now. (Of course for others this is precisely the point: modern industrialised economies like Australia are so productive that we don’t need to work forty hours a week except insofar as we need to keep up with everyone else working forty hours a week.)

So I’m taking it all with a grain of salt. The folks behind the AuSSA survey say that they are yet to fully analyse the data, so maybe some more robust results will come out in due course. Perhaps the most important thing for now is that someone is asking the question, which is the only way we’ll find a better design.

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