Could basic income help Germany tackle the effects of corona?

A government committee is discussing a new form of economic support during the pandemic that could dramatically change Germany's welfare state.

More than this, less than you'd like. 
More than this, less than you'd like. imago images

Berlin-A committee within Germany's lower house of parliament that deals with citizen petitions on Monday will discuss the introduction of a basic income to help relieve the economic impact of the corona crisis. 

The discussion is based on a petition on the idea signed by more than 176,000 people for an short-term basic income with no strings attached. "We have to make sure that nobody falls through the bureaucratic grid of responsibility and that nobody gets into existential trouble," the petition says.

Calls for a universal basic income has gained new momentum during the corona crisis but the idea itself is not new. Several initiatives have campaigned for years to introduce an income that everyone in Germany – regardless of their nationality, relationship status or age – could live on.

Laura Brämswig is a social psychologist and co-founder of Expedition Grundeinkommen, a universal basic income initiative that supports Monday's petition. She says many people are still struggling economically during the pandemic.

Instead of constantly launching new support programmes, she says a “crisis basic income” paid over six months would give people the chance to concentrate on preparing for the post-pandemic future – without the fear of not being able to support themselves.

Criticism of the idea has been around just as long. Opponents argue it would be too expensive and complicated to implement, and that people receiving a basic income would lose their motivation to work.

“This is exactly why we at Expedition Grundeinkommen are calling for scientific trials,” Laura Brämswig says. The trials would investigate whether or not a basic income should be introduced as well as what kind.

“This concept doesn’t necessarily mean just giving everyone €1000, but ensuring that everyone is entitled to a basic income – although that could mean that differences in taxation might determine that those who have less would benefit accordingly.”

Trials of basic income have already been run in other countries including Finland, Scotland and Italy. In Germany, the crowdfunding initiative Mein Grundeinkommen is currently running a pilot project which pays successful applicants €1200 every month for up to three years. Mein Grundeinkommen has won the backing of the German Institute for Economic Research.

Brämswig doesn’t believe that a universal basic income would automatically make people lazy: “That viewpoint feeds off a primeval fear that people will fundamentally stop contributing as soon as they stop seeing work as necessary to earn money.”

Arguments on both side are highly ideological and scientific trials could lead to a less polarised discussion.

“We want to test how people really behave when a proportionate basic income gives them security and with it a certain freedom, and what choices they then make,” Brämswig says. “We want to establish the facts that can form the basis of discussion.”

In today’s meeting of the Bundestag Committee on Pensions, the proposal of a crisis basic income will be discussed as a priority. At the same time, Brämswig and her co-campaigners hope that the hearing will provide a starting point for a real political debate.

“The corona crisis has shown how quickly people can fall through the economic cracks through no fault of their own,” she says. “We should ask ourselves the question: Does it really have to be like this? Is this really the welfare state we want to live in?”

This article was adapted from the original German for the English Edition Elizabeth Rushton.