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Six months on: Feedback on Finland's basic income trial

The Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle is following three individuals during Finland's two-year basic income experiment. Marin, Mira and Juha were all unemployed when they were randomly selected as part of a group of 2,000 to start receiving an unconditional tax-free payment of 560 euros a month. A recent New York Times article by two Finnish researchers broadly criticized the trial.

Marin Vaasasta, Mira Jaskari ja Juha Järvinen.
Yle is following the lives of Marin, Mira and Juha as random recipients of a basic income. Image: Yle

Finland's social benefits administrator Kela began a small basic income trial in 2016, as the government cast about to find a viable solution to stubborn long-term unemployment and a jungle of state assistance payments. The basic income was supposed to simplify benefit payments and remove disincentives to work or start a business.

The trial itself has been harshly criticised by some in the international media, but how do people involved feel? Could an unconditional monthly payment better encourage people who are without work to take on part-time or temporary employment?

Marin lives in the western coastal city of Vaasa, where she has been hired by the city for the summer. She helps people struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues to handle various life management and social problems. She got the job through her school, where she's studying to become a nurse.

"My studies have been going quite well. I've been working at a private day care since February, in addition to my studies," she says.

Easier to combine work and studies

She says her initial scepticism about the basic income trial has now turned to support.

"Now that I've been working, it feels great. I can take part-time work without losing the basic income. I will take all the work I can get," she says. "I wouldn't have started at the daycare otherwise; it would have just led to less money in the end."

Her colleagues, on the other hand, have to consider their work options carefully, because they risk losing their study benefits and housing assistance, for example, if they take too much temporary or part-time work.

"I now firmly believe that basic income would improve employment figures if it were rolled out on a wider basis," she says.

Mental issues make things difficult

Mira Jaskari moved from Vantaa to the southwest city of Turku in the spring to join her partner. At first, she worked part-time as a newspaper and ad distributor. Her participation in Finland's basic income experiment meant that she can take part-time work without the risk of losing income, something that was not possible when she was still collecting unemployment assistance.

She enjoyed the fast-paced delivery work – while it lasted.

"I watched as the city woke up, and was able to admire the sunrise and the quiet cityscape," she said.

But her ideal work arrangement turned out to be short-lived. She has dealt on and off with depression and started having panic attacks. After being forced to take a sick leave while she was still on her trial period, she was let go.

"Of course it didn't feel good to be fired. I felt like a failure. I had prepared myself well, and I thought I could handle it," she says.

She has started a new treatment regime in Turku and has her heart set on sticking with it.

"I'm lucky to have a great support network that keeps me moving forward. I have to start making things happen and not get stuck in the mud."

She plans to start looking for a new job, preferably in office work, food services or a bakery. She already has a two-year business degree, along with a similar qualification in the hospitality sector. She has considered continuing her studies, perhaps finishing a study programme in baking.

Can't wait to be a taxpayer again

Juha Järvinen is waiting to hear back from the tax man about the company he wants to start. He's got several projects he wants to pursue: shaman drum construction and a series of 'nature concerts' he hopes to organize in Finland's national parks.

"I am eager to become a taxpayer again," he says. "I've been waiting for months to hear if my business will be accepted in the registrar. It has slowed my activities down."

He has a dispute with the tax authorities, as they say he owes advance taxes from the year 2011, but he says his previous decorative window-making company was already bankrupt by that time.

He says Finland has made it too hard to become an entrepreneur.

"It's surprising that the greatest challenge isn't what you plan to do, but dealing with the slow wheels of bureaucracy."

After this interview went to press, Juha finally heard back from the authorities: his company was given leave to start invoicing customers. He is back in business.

Criticism surfaces

The trial has had some harsh criticism from basic income enthusiasts unhappy that the trial is smaller-scale than they'd hoped.

One article written by two Finnish researchers, Antti Jauhiainen and Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen, was published on July 20 in the New York Times under the headline "Why Finland's Basic Income Experiment Isn't Working". The authors are scathing in their appraisal, saying the Finnish trail "was poorly designed and is little more than a publicity stunt."

They have no quarrel with the idea of a basic income per se, but take issue with the political posturing behind Finland's experiment and its tiny scale. Jauhiainen and Mäkinen say the number of participants was cut so dramatically from the original plan that any scientifically-reliable results are now impossible.

They also say the impetus behind the project is hardly charitable.

"The government has made no secret of the fact that its universal basic income experiment isn’t about liberating the poor or fighting inequality. Instead, the trial’s 'primary goal' is 'promoting employment'," they say.

The article finishes by saying that the Finnish experiment can basically be seen as an example of "how not to conduct a trial of this kind".

The Kela trial will last from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2018 and Yle will be checking in with Mira, Juha and Marin regularly during this time.

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