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Finland's basic income experiment begins: one man looks forward to a new start

Juha Järvinen is one of 2,000 unemployed people selected to participate in Finland’s basic income trial and receive a tax-free monthly payment from the state of 560 euros. He says the money will help him return to a normal life and get his business off the ground.

Juha Järvinen with three of his six children. Image: Ville Hakonen / Yle

Juha Järvinen, from the western Finnish city of Kurikka, felt like a lucky man in late 2016, when he learned he was one of the 2,000 unemployed selected to take part in a nationwide basic income experiment. 

“When I saw the letter from Kela in the mailbox, I was like ’Yes!’”, he says.

Finland’s basic income trial is being run by the state-owned benefits administrator Kela. The 2,000 participants were selected from the ranks of existing labour market subsidy and unemployment benefit recipients. According to Statistics Finland's Labour Force Survey, there were 213,000 unemployed people in Finland in November 2016.

The participants in the compulsory trial will receive a tax-free payment of 560 euros every month for the next two years. Kela says the purpose of the trial is to ascertain how receiving a state benefit with no strings attached will affect employment.

Järvinen says he thinks the trial will help him to find work.

“The basic income will allow me to jump back into normal life. Now that it has my back, I can freely give things a try,” he says.

More freedom to take temp work

Järvinen received his first 560-euro payment in his bank account on January 9. The monthly amount will be 90 euros less than Järvinen was receiving in unemployment benefits before the trial.

Even so, Järvinen is happy about the change, as the basic income will give him more freedom and allow him to entertain more alternatives. The ‘no-strings attached’ principle of the basic income is in contrast to Kela policy, for example, that reduces the labour market subsidy if any additional income is earned.

“If I get offered occasional gigs, now I can take them. Before I had to say ‘no’. I want to work and I can do it. In the past, I’ve felt as if I can’t do work, because if I did, I suffered for it.” 

Opponents of the basic income experiment say it is expensive and it gives people leave to live at the expense of others. Others feel it has the potential to institutionalize temporary contracts and weaken collective labour agreements, in addition to exacerbating the marginalization of women and social outcasts. 

Dreaming of self-employment

Järvinen has been unemployed for five years. Before this, he ran his own one-man company for seven years. His firm manufactured decorative window frames, and demand even extended to markets beyond Finland’s borders.

Towards the end, however, he found himself working for months at a time without a salary, in practice. Finally, he burned out and the company went bankrupt.

“I lost my credit rating and went into foreclosure.”

Järvinen says he believes that the basic income will give him a new chance. He is confident that he’ll have a new business up and running by the end of January or beginning of February.

“For my part, the basic income will mean I can escape enslavement and feel that I am a functioning citizen again.”

Bureaucratic jungle eases up

Järvinen says the basic income will also mean that he can be more present in his children’s everyday life. The oldest of his six children is 15 and the youngest is 5. His wife works as a nurse.

He is certain that his family will run up against much less bureaucracy during the basic income experiment than what they experienced when he was receiving social assistance – Finland’s last-resort form of financial aid.

He remembers one incident in particular when he needed to warm his house. Kela agrees to pay certain bills that are necessary for basic necessities in life, like food, clothing and public transport. Any bills paid directly reduce the amount of basic social assistance, however.

“I couldn’t get money for wood to heat the house, so I had to revert to electric heating.”

If his home would have had a wood-burning stove in the sauna, he would have qualified for 50 euros in compensation. Because the money to heat his house with wood was rejected, he had to rely on electric heating, which ended up being much more expensive.

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