Unconditional Basic Income
“It makes us freer in the way we think and act”
Henrik Maass received an unconditional basic income of €1,000 a month for a year. His conclusion: this could be the welfare state of the future.
By Ula Brunner
Mr Maass, you won an unconditional basic income. For a whole year, up to June 2018, €1,000 was credited to your account every month, just like that. Do you remember the moment you got the good news?
My girlfriend Rebecca and I jumped for joy around the flat and just couldn't believe it after we’d fortunately taken a closer look at what looked a spam that said "YOU HAVE WON!" It was definitively real when the first €1,000 was simply there in our account. We were very relieved and grateful.
My Basic Income
The "Mein Grundeinkommen" project has been raising money through crowdfunding for unconditional basic income since 2015. Every time it raises the sum of €12,000, it is raffled off: the winner then receives €1,000 a month for one year to use as they see fit, with no deductions or strings attached. This amount is more than the current minimum subsistence level in Germany of €735 per month.
What did you do with the money?
Something other than originally planned. My girlfriend and I are farmers. We were actually making plans to start up our own farm. Naturally, a year's basic income would have been a welcome increase to our own capital resources. But my girlfriend became chronically ill and couldn’t work anymore. So the money went to cover expensive diagnostics and medication as well as our household expenses. We’ve always made a point of buying eco-friendly fair trade food and clothing and minimizing our ecological footprint. That makes life a bit more expensive, and the basic income has enabled us to maintain our sustainable lifestyle. The only thing we really treated ourselves to was a second-hand piano. So our lives haven't changed much. But I feel the unconditional basic income is a great enrichment, and not only financially.
In what way?
It makes us freer in the way we think and act, even if of course it’s not a panacea for saving the world. But it allays our anxiety about making a living, which is an important prerequisite for thinking outside the box. I’ve been getting more involved in agricultural issues again, for example, advocating for food sovereignty.
Unconditional basic income is a controversial idea. Advocates hope it will bring about a simpler and more efficient welfare state that respects the dignity of the individual and makes equal participation in society possible. Detractors fear above all that we’d end up lounging around in the social hammock. What was your experience?
None of the winners of basic income that I’ve met quit their job (laughs). Some have used the money for further education, others as start-up capital for a new business. Everyone wants to make a contribution to society in one form or another. That doesn’t necessarily have to be something measurable in terms of economic growth, it can also be caring for the sick or elderly, community service in a village or political involvement – things that tend to get short shrift when our main concern is making money to support ourselves and our families. Our year of basic income showed my girlfriend and me that financial relief helps enormously, especially in hard times.
There are some very different models of basic income – as compensation for community service, for example. What do you think of that?
The benefit of basic income goes by the board if it comes with strings attached. If it really is unconditional – an income to which everyone is entitled – then the elaborate bureaucratic machine for the distribution of social benefits can be pared down. Means tests and pension and unemployment insurance would then become superfluous. Naturally, we’d still have to think through the nuts and bolts of it, I’m no expert. But the unconditional aspect brings a certain ease, freeing up very different capacities.
A uniform monthly stipend for every citizen, an end to the degrading ritual of signing on for the dole – how would such a concept change our social system?
A secure basic livelihood would give our society a different kind of serenity, a certain calm. Many forms of aggression that arise out of the constant pressure to make a living would disappear. I think communal life would be more pleasant and creative. People would be more inclined to seek work that is meaningful to them. It annoys me that instead of seriously considering the idea, politicians agree subsistence levels instead. We should engage in a more vigorous public discourse about unconditional basic income. If we all get behind it, policymakers will have to react. I’m confident that it will be introduced in the medium term and will improve the future for everyone.
What is unconditional basic income?
Unconditional basic income is a sociopolitical model in which every citizen receives a monthly handout from the state with no strings attached. The idea is to give everyone a share in the total income of a society, regardless of whether they are in need or not. The idea is being discussed all over the world and is occasionally tested in pilot projects. German citizens have no legal claim to an unconditional basic income.