Q&A with lead author of research report on postsecondary student perceptions of basic income

Andrei Adam is the Co-President JED Consulting and the lead author of a research report entitled Perceptions of Basic Income Among University Students. Basic income advocate Roderick Benns posed some questions to Adam after the research report was released.

Benns: While it’s difficult to convey everything in a single answer, does this report on Basic Income suggest there’s widespread support for basic income from a post secondary student perspective?

Adam: Yes, this report suggests that there is widespread support for Basic Income among university students. 57% of students we surveyed were in support of Basic Income, while only 12% were opposed (+45% net support). We also found that net support for Basic Income remained positive across almost all demographics: regardless of a student’s family income, gender, race or knowledge of the policy, they were more likely to support Basic Income than oppose it. In fact, the only demographic group opposed to a BI were Conservative-leaning respondents, with -24% net support. Interestingly, even those with “significantly above average family incomes” were in support of Basic Income, with 51% in support and 23% opposed.

Something interesting is that when we asked students how their support would change if their family’s taxes were “slightly raised” to pay for a national Basic Income, there was no change in aggregate support. Students say they would be willing to carry higher taxes to finance a Basic Income. 

Benns: Did the report get at ways of how advocates could sell their vision of a basic income, including for government messaging if it comes on board to implement a BI? What was the key takeaway there?

Adam: Two framings of Basic Income increased support for the policy among students. The most impactful was when Basic Income was framed as a way to improve upon today’s “ineffective poverty-reduction policies”. Students felt like whatever poverty-reduction policies are in place today aren’t working great: they referenced the increased use of food banks, the high number of homeless and personal experiences as evidence that our policies today aren’t great at reducing poverty. When Basic Income was introduced as a potential way to improve upon our social safety net, many people became more supportive of a Basic Income pilot project to see if it could bring benefits and/or be a cheaper way of producing the same results (before committing to supporting a larger-scale policy).

The other message was focusing on the improvements to mental and physical health that a Basic Income could bring. Students felt like these issues were personal to them, and it was easy to be moved by a story of a mom worried about how to feed her kids (which a BI would then enable her to do).

Benns: What surprised you, as lead author, about the results you gathered?

Adam: I was surprised by the percentage of students who said they didn’t think they deserved Basic Income payments. Even though every student we spoke to in focus groups would qualify for most Basic Income programs (ie. they were over 18 and had an income below the poverty line), a majority said they did not think they deserve BI payments. Some referenced parental support, but the most referenced reason for why they didn’t think deserved payments was their belief they would be able to earn a decent living because of their degree post-graduation. Even those who had taken on student loans said they had chosen their degree strategically to earn an ROI that makes their debt “worth it”. That was an interesting perspective because it made me wonder what percentage of people who earn below the poverty line would be receptive to a program like BI that seeks to uplift them, or would they think they’re not deserving of it? It also made me wonder whether current government benefits (ex. GST/HST rebate) are going to people who don’t feel they ‘need’ the money, and if so, how much. 

Benns: Do you have any thoughts on the Ontario Basic Income Pilot and its premature demise?

Adam: As the lead author of a non-partisan report, what I will say is that our research leads me to believe that the opinions of Canadian students towards Basic Income will be shaped by whatever evidence emerges from a modern, large-scale and fully funded pilot project in Canada. Even though Basic Income has strong support among students, most people aren’t actually too confident in their support for the policy (less than 20% are ‘very confident’). Students also expressed skepticism and/or fully rejected rhetorical messages designed to influence their support (they actually asked for evidence often to back up claims about BI’s cost, potential benefits and drawbacks). 

These factors make me believe that students will pay attention to whatever evidence for/against BI emerges from a pilot project. The issue today is that most pilot projects are either international (and so it can be argued whether its impacts would translate to Canada) or the pilots were canceled before full results came out (Dauphin/ OBIP). With that context in mind, I think the canceling of the OBIP was a missed opportunity to change opinions of people towards Basic Income and prove/disprove its potential as a policy. Whether or not that’s a worthwhile investment in the first place is a question outside of the report (but personally, I think poverty-reduction is a meaningful goal, and so experimenting with ways to do it better than we do today is smart). 

Benns: Will this report lead to next steps for your research team, and if so, what?

Adam: Unfortunately not. At JED Consulting, we have the resources to only publish 1 public report each semester, and we like to vary the topic each time to keep it interesting for our consultants. If I did have the resources to research this further, I would like to explore more on the topic of a Basic Income Pilot Project. Our report focused a lot on BI as a national policy, but it would be interesting to see how perceptions are different towards a pilot project and the messaging that increases/decreases support specifically for it.