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There is growing support in the rich world for a basic-income guarantee (BIG), in which the government would provide a fixed cash transfer to every adult, poor or not. In 2015, for example, the Swiss will vote on a referendum to introduce a BIG. We have not yet seen a national BIG rolled out, although there are policies in place with similar features. (For example, the US earned-income tax credit, while not strictly a BIG, contains some similarities.) Proponents say it’s an easy way to reduce poverty and inequality; if that’s so, it’s time to think BIG in the developing world, too.

Support for the BIG idea (also known as a poll transfer, guaranteed income, citizenship income, or an unmodified social dividend) has spanned the political spectrum. Some supporters see it as a “right of citizenship,” or a foundation for economic freedom to relax the material constraint on peoples’ choices in life. Others have pointed out that a BIG is an administratively easy way to reduce poverty and inequality, with modest distortionary effect on the economy as a whole. There are no substitution effects of a BIG on its own (there’s no action anyone can take to change their transfer receipts). Supporters also note there’s no stigma associated with a BIG, since it’s not targeted only to poor people. And a BIG may well be more politically sustainable than finely targeted options that may have a narrow base of support. 

Opponents, on the other hand, echo longstanding concerns that the welfare state undermines work incentives. There may well be income effects of a BIG on demand, including for leisure. The effect on employment is unclear, however. The BIG could ease constraints on work opportunities, such as those that hinder self-employment or migration. On balance, work may even increase.

As with any social policy, a complete assessment of the implications for efficiency and equity of a BIG must also take all costs and how it is financed into account. The administrative cost would likely be low, though certainly not zero given some form of personal registration system would be needed to avoid “double dipping” and to ensure larger households receive proportionately more. One low-cost way of doing this would be to establish a personal identification system, such as the Aadhaar in India

Further, a BIG could be a feasible budget-neutral way of reforming social policies. There could be ample scope for financing it by cutting poorly targeted transfer schemes and subsidies heavily favoring the non-poor. A BIG scheme would easily replace many policies found in practice today. For example, it would clearly do better in reaching the poor than the subsidies on the consumption of normal goods (such as fuel) that are still found in a number of countries.

The un-targeted nature of a BIG runs against the prevailing view in some circles that finer targeting is always better. But that view is questionable. For example, recent research has shown that once one accounts for all the costs involved in India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, including the forgone earnings of participants, a BIG with the same budgetary cost would have greater impact on poverty than the labor earnings from the existing scheme. The work requirements of the employment scheme ensure that it is very well-targeted. Even so, it is likely to be a less cost-effective way to reduce poverty than an untargeted BIG with the same budgetary cost. There may well be other advantages to India’s current scheme; for example, asset creation, risk mitigation, and empowerment. But it is not clear whether these benefits would tilt the balance relative to a far simpler BIG.

The BIG idea should be put on the menu of social policy options for developing countries.