The many names of Basic Income

For such a simple idea, Basic Income has a complex web of alternative names. Here are some of the other names for Basic Income, including a quick guide to what is and what isn’t BI.

The Basic Income thesaurus

Basic Income, by its very nature, is a simple idea: it’s a regular payment to every individual that is unconditional on employment status (or anything else for that matter) and that is enough to cover basic needs. You receive a regular income purely for being a human being, no questions asked. It’s a simple idea, and that’s one of the reasons why it is so compelling.

Given Basic Income’s simplicity, it’s rather surprising that those who advocate for it can’t seem to agree on one of the most fundamental yet mundane features of it: its name. All around the world, people are using different formulations of words to label what is essentially the same thing, much to the bewilderment of everyone. From trendy upstarts advocating for “Unconditional Basic Income” to hardy hold-outs clinging on to “Citizen’s Income”, there is a lot of people who are all very keen on Basic Income but don’t appear to have agreed on what precisely to call it.

To make matters worse, there are some very similar schemes that people call Basic Income but actually aren’t. Many of the most high-profile news stories recently around Basic Income pilots or proposals haven’t been Basic Income schemes at all: they are programmes that administer social security in a way that differs from traditional means-tested systems but still isn’t universal, unconditional or individual. Such schemes create yet more apparent synonyms of Basic Income, but under false pretences, so it’s important to properly demarcate them from actual Basic Income.  

Confused? I know I am. That’s why I’ve put together this handy guide to list all of the other names of ideas that are actually just Basic Income – as well as a few that most certainly aren’t.

Minimum Income Guarantee / Guaranteed Minimum Income

What is Minimum Income Guarantee?

A guarantee by a country’s government to ensure that nobody’s income falls below a particular level, which in practice usually means topping up the money gained from work or other benefits so it reaches a sufficient level for someone to live on, similar to the tax credits introduced in the UK in 2003 by then-chancellor Gordon Brown.

Is it basic income?

No, though a lot of people pretend it is. For example, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the recent cancellation of a proposed Basic Income pilot in the Canadian province of Ontario, causing a lot of understandable frustration for those who planned and supported the project.

The thing is, the Ontario trial was never a Basic Income pilot, but a Minimum Income Guarantee pilot. A quick scan of the pilot project’s website tells you all you need to know. According to the website, the “Basic Income” will be given to “anyone who meets the income eligibility criterion” following a “tax credit model”, in which earned income is deducted from the overall amount of money that recipients get from the government. This indicates that the pilot was not unconditional (as people had to drop below a certain income to be eligible) and was designed around providing participants with a guaranteed minimum income that took into account earned income in its calculations. These are hallmarks of a Minimum Income Guarantee scheme, and the use of the term “Basic Income” is unhelpful to those advocating for a genuine Basic Income and confusing for journalists, commentators and the public.

Basic income guarantee

Is it basic income?

Yes – Basic Income Guarantee is the term many North American campaigners use when they are actually talking about Basic Income. And in a way, that “guarantee” at the end makes a lot of sense – after all, Basic Income is universal, unconditional and non-withdrawable, so it is an income that everyone is guaranteed to receive.

However, there are also some issues with it. First of all, it’s superfluous – most people who talk about basic income know that it is universal, unconditional and non-withdrawable, so they don’t need to append the word “guarantee” to it. Secondly, adding that word “guarantee” makes it sound even more like a Minimum Income Guarantee, which as we’ve discussed is too often confused with Basic Income as it is.

Negative Income Tax

What is Negative Income Tax?

Negative Income Tax is a system of social security tied to taxation, in which people earning below a certain threshold receive money from the government, while those earning above a certain threshold pay income tax as normal.

Is it Basic Income?

No. While many writers on Basic Income suggest paying for a Basic Income scheme using income tax, their emphasis is very different. While Basic Income is given to everyone and then may be taxed away from the wealthiest, Negative Income Tax only gives money to the poorest in the first place. This means that an NIT system would have some of the same problems of current means-tested benefits systems, in which the poor are stigmatised for receiving money that comes out of other people’s taxes. Basic Income resolves this problem because everyone receives it, so it’s important that it is not confused with Negative Income Tax.

Citizen’s Income / Citizen’s Basic Income

Is it Basic Income?

Yes. Citizen’s Income is a term that gained traction in the nascent Basic Income community in the early 1990s, and was frequently used (perhaps even more so than the term “Basic Income” itself) as recently as 2015, when the Green Party of England and Wales made introducing a “Citizen’s Income” a tentpole of their general election campaign. Citizen’s Income has since morphed into “Citizen’s Basic Income” and survives in the names of organisations like Citizen’s Basic Income Trust and Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland.  

However, the inclusion of the word “Citizen’s” is not without controversy. Pedants continue to debate the placement of the apostrophe: should it be used before the ‘s’, to indicate that it is paid on an individual rather than a household basis, or after the ‘s’ to indicate it is a universal payment? Or should it be omitted altogether?

More troublingly, the word “Citizen’s” appears to put a qualifier on the universal nature of Basic Income, by implying that only a country’s citizens should receive a Basic Income. On a practical level, this would necessarily include checks for nationality, adding new layers of bureaucracy when advocates suggest Basic Income  would reduce such administrative checks. And on a moral level, it seems wrong to deprive refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants a Basic Income just because they don’t have citizenship. As a result, while linking Basic Income to citizenship in the broadest and most positive sense is admirable, the term could similarly acquire some unhelpful connotations.

Universal Basic Income

Is it Basic Income?

Yes and a more fashionable term nowadays than “Citizen’s Income”. Although not always a useful qualifier, the term “universal” does help distinguish a true Basic Income from more targeted schemes that we’ve seen emerge in recent years. The much-reported experiment in Finland, for example, was a Basic Income pilot but not a universal one, as it was an unconditional payment (non-means tested) but given only to a specific segment of Finnish society (the unemployed). In this sense, calling a Basic Income scheme a “Universal Basic Income” helps indicate that it will be a true Basic Income in the sense of applying to the whole population.

Unfortunately, in a British context the word “universal” brings with it some negative connotations. The British state is currently in the midst of rolling out universal credit, an underfunded and misconceived social security system which rolls several existing benefits into one single monthly payment, and whose implementation is causing misery and hardship for families around the country. With universal credit etched into our collective psyche as a punitive and destructive policy, there is the potential for similarly named social security policies to be tarred with the same brush. I know this from my own experience: when I gave a talk about Basic Income in Glasgow a few months ago, another member of the panel I was on continually confused Universal Basic Income with universal credit. Suffice to say I’ve since decided to drop the “universal” so this doesn’t happen again.

Participation Income

What is Participation Income?

A regular payment to every individual that is unconditional on employment status (or anything else for that matter) and that is enough to cover basic needs. You receive a regular income purely for being a human being… as long as you participate in the community and wider society. This could be in the form of work, volunteering, unpaid care, education or any other meaningful activity.

Is it Basic Income?

No. Whereas the logic behind Basic Income assumes you know the best way to spend your additional income, Participation Income still wants to make sure that you’re not sitting on the sofa eating crisps and watching Netflix all day. In short, it needs to be unconditional to be Basic Income, and Participation Income is very much conditional on doing something “beneficial” with your life.

Unconditional Basic Income

What is Unconditional Basic Income?

In one of his sterling survival documentaries, presenter Ray Mears once sagely said, “snow is a very strange thing. I put my hand in, and it comes out cold!” Snow, it turns out, is cold. The sky, perhaps to Mears’ equal fascination, is blue. It is also possible to see through most types of glass. Yet do we all go around calling it “cold snow”, “blue sky” and “transparent glass”, as if any of these terms acts as a useful qualifier or a sign of some form of aberration? No, we don’t.

So it’s surprising to me that we’ve decided to call Basic Income – an unconditional payment – Unconditional Basic Income, when being unconditional is almost the defining characteristic of the idea, to the extent that if we stopped making it unconditional it would cease to be a Basic Income. Let’s stop stating the obvious and drop the qualifier.

Which leaves us with…

Basic Income

Is it Basic Income?

Yes! “Basic Income” does what it says on the tin: a regular payment that acts as a basis (foundation) from which you can build, while also ensuring your basic needs are met. Simple.

I hope that whistle stop tour of Basic Income terms has helped clarify the myriad of complex names for this simple policy solution. If not, or you think there are more labels that need to be covered, then email me at jackperry@ideasfortoday.org.uk.

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Jack Perry

A blogger and advocate based in Glasgow, and the Editor of IDEAS FOR TODAY. Jack is a Trustee of Citizen's Basic Income Network Scotland and is involved with several voluntary groups around the country.

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