Amid the economic fall out of the Coronavirus pandemic, with widespread unemployment and rising income inequality, calls for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) have once again resurfaced and risen to prominence within global policy discussions. Consisting of a periodic cash payment made on an individual basis to all, without means-testing or work requirement, the policy aims to end poverty through providing a financial safety net through which no one can fall (Tory & Jenner, 2019). In Scotland, where close to a quarter of all children and a fifth of ‘working age’ adults live in poverty, interest in the concept has surged, with four local authorities announcing proposals for UBI pilots in their respective areas (Danson, 2019; General Register Office for Scotland, 2020).
Integral to this mounting support is the hypothesised potential for UBI to address the unacceptably high levels of mental health inequities which the country faces. The link between Scotland’s endemic poverty and its poor mental wellbeing is undeniable. Suicide rates are among the highest in the UK and rising (Pompili, O’Connor & Van Heeringen, 2020), and the country has become infamous as home to the highest drug related deaths in western Europe (Nicholls et al. 2019), with those living in Scotland’s most deprived areas shouldering the vast majority of the burden (General Register Office for Scotland, 2020). Therefore, for its proponents, UBI possesses not only the potential to improve the economic situation of individuals and their families, but through doing so to improve population mental health.
Yet, the ability for UBI to achieve this continues to be fiercely debated. Vehement opposition from critics has questioned the affordability of such a policy and queried the value of UBI over other poverty alleviating strategies (Goulden, 2018; Downes & Lansley, 2018). Others have stressed the potential for this to divert funds currently targeted at those most in need and have cast doubt on UBI’s potential to redistribute wealth amongst the population, with economic modelling studies producing conflicting results (Nikiforos, Steinbaum & Zezza, 2017; Kozminski & Baek, 2017; Hoynes & Rothstein, 2019).
However, the proposed mental health benefits of UBI do not merely centre on its debatable poverty alleviating potential. The universal, unconditional and individual tenets of UBI are also argued to hold unique benefits for population wellbeing. In the first instance it is argued that universal payments that are not targeted at particular social groups may forge increased social solidarity through reducing poverty stigma (Bueskens, 2017; Tory & Jenner, 2019). Secondly, it is claimed that the per capita basis of payments could be potentially freedom enhancing for many, allowing them social and financial independence from partners, family members, caregivers and, in some cases, perpetrators of violence (Mays, 2019). Thirdly, it is asserted that the unconditional nature of UBI payments may have untold benefits for the mental health of recipients who would otherwise be exposed to stress-inducing benefit sanctions and strict eligibility conditions applied to traditional welfare payments (Painter & Thoung, 2015)
Despite these arguments, while several previous reports have examined the effects of UBI on income (Conner & Taggart, 2013; Berman, 2018), employment (Jones & Marinescu, 2018), labour market demand and consumption (Gibson, Hearty and Craig, 2020; Calnitsky, 2020) with conflicting results, the direct mental health consequences of previous UBI pilots have been less rigorously examined (Ruckert, Huynh & Labonté, 2018; Aiden et al. 2020). To better inform policymakers, there would be considerable value in knowing to what extent the universal, unconditional and individual tenets of a UBI are likely to improve mental health. This report does not therefore seek to add to the existing conflicting literature on UBI’s potential to reduce poverty and income inequality. Rather, it aims to fill the gap in this literature base, through providing a summary of findings from previous UBI pilots on the mental health effects of these unique principles.