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Basic Income and Trust
by Olli Kangas | 11.07.2022
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Mutual trust is a prerequisite for any sustainable social organization. Societies with low levels of generalised trust in fellow citizens and institutions inevitably struggle with political instability and corruption; hence, when reforming social institutions and experimenting with new social policy models, the emphasis should be placed on how to increase and maintain trust. The academic literature has typically separated trust into two distinct forms: trust in one’s fellow citizens, also called generalised trust, and trust in institutions. The importance of trust should not be ignored when assessing the functioning of existing national institutions or when planning new policies.

Trust formation is a complex process that involves a variety of factors. Social policy is one of the most important factors contributing to trust – for the better or the worse. More specificly, the selectivity of social policies’ designs can stigmatise their targets, generate alterity (i.e. divide people with paying “us” and “them” getting benefits), and, consequently, jeopardise trust both in institutions and in other people. From that starting point, the proponents of universal basic income (UBI) claim that universal and unconditional benefits would enhance trust. UBI is seen to be “money of trust”.

In our study, De Andrade, L. H. A., Ylikännö, M., & Kangas, O. (2021) ”Increased Trust in the Finnish UBI Experiment - Is the Secret Universalism or Less Bureaucracy?” published in  Basic Income Studies, we analysed the multifaceted relationships between means-tested and universal benefits and different forms of trust. Our analyses were based on the Finnish basic income experiment 2017-2018.

Our results show complex relationships between UBI and trust. First, the recipiency of UBI is linked to significantly higher trust both in the social security system and trust in other people. However, the story is much more complex.

As regards trust in the social security system, it is argued that UBI involves less bureaucracy and, therefore, enhances trust. Indeed, receiving UBI clearly implies less experience with excessive bureaucracy. This connection is, however, somewhat obscure: Those UBI recipients whose household income consisted also of unemployment benefits and social assistance displayed the highest level of bureaucratic encounters. The most likely explanation for this is that in the Finnish experiment, UBI only partially replaced social benefits and to a certain extent made the system more complicated for the beneficiaries than before the experiment. Thus, it is not about the level of selectiveness in social benefits, but rather the procedures connected to their application and payment. As long as the social security system is comprehensible and citizens can trust it to function in a just and fair way, conditionality in the benefits is accepted and does not lower the trust in the system. The question is about procedural justice and fairness.

As regards generalised trust, selectivity has a negative impact on it. Hence, being subjected to screening can at the same time lower trust in fellow citizens and maintain trust in the social security system. This implies that while the social security system is regarded as a trusted actor in society, other people for one reason or another are not. The suspicion against fellow citizens may have something to do with how the benefit recipients understand themselves. If they think that they should be grateful to the better-off for the means-tested cash transfers they receive, then there may be psychological self-tagging and alterity-building mechanisms that lower generalised trust.

Overall trust in society is largely related to bureaucratic experiences. Hence, while not offsetting all selectivity-bound demeaning effects, universalism and automaticity within social security systems can increase feelings of procedural justice and increase trust. Minimum income policies as long as their implementation involves less effort from recipients to prove their rights, refraining from constantly grasshopper-stamping them, generate trust in society and trust in other people. Recently implemented policies, such as those launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in diverse countries, could be a relevant source for future research to better understand how the implemented policies, their procedures, universalism and automaticity have impacted recipients’ trust.