Are We Europe

Back to Basics

A first glimpse into how a universal basic income looks like in reality.
Story commissioned by the Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative and produced by Are We Europe. Text by Marjolein Koster and Ties Gijzel; pictures by Florian Bachmeier.
Karen Schneeweiss visits her grandmother on her birthday. Schneeweiss also signed up as a volunteer to a local hospice, which is currently closed due to the pandemic. November 2020.
When Karen Schneeweiss (49) arrived home from her job at a small German theatre at the beginning of 2020, she would still have to answer an average of 50 emails from her second job at two sailing schools. Schneeweiss is an actress and took on these two extra jobs to be able to pay her monthly bills. With a constant feeling of having to be on standby, nothing seemed to indicate that she would have the time to focus more on her work as an actress anytime soon. Little could she know that she was about to win a fixed monthly income of 1000 euros and finally have the time to work on ideas that she had neglected for too long.

Schneeweiss has been receiving a basic income for almost a year from the German organization Mein Grundeinkommen. Founded in 2014, the organization continuously crowdfunds basic incomes and organizes periodic raffles to randomly select its beneficiaries regardless of their age, background, current income, or nationality. Today, 843–mostly German–citizens have received a basic income from Mein Grundeinkommen and more than 2.7 million people have signed up for the organization’s raffles.
Left: Karen Schneeweiss at her work at a small theatre. Right: The front part of Schneeweiss’ house will be transformed into a small community theatre. November 2020.   
The idea of a universal basic income is not new. For centuries, philosophers, economists and politicians have imagined a society where people could work less while maintaining a decent standard of living. Since the 1970s, small scale experiments have been conducted in countries like Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Canada, the US and South-Korea. Mein Grundeinkommen's basic income initiative is the first community-led and unconditional trial so far.

The call for new ideas on how to improve people’s well-being has been getting louder in recent years. In March 2020, researchers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and McKinsey published reports in which they call for new, bold investments into people’s well-being in the long run and a re-evaluation of the social contract respectively.

The OECD found that the increase in welfare that we experienced over the last ten years will not be enough to sustain people’s well-being in the long term. Almost 40% of the households are still financially insecure, people only spend an average of six hours per week interacting with their families and friends, and the average death toll of suicide, alcohol and drugs abuse has become six times higher than the death toll from homocide.
Karen Schneeweiss in the empty theatre where she used to perform before the pandemic. November 2020.            
Schneeweiss recognizes some of these trends in her own community in Netzen, a village an hour’s drive from Berlin: “I grew up in the German Democratic Republic. Money was not so important back then and people had a lot of time left to spend with friends. Nowadays, your freedom is restricted by the constant need to earn enough money to pay for your living.”

With her basic income, Schneeweiss can now turn down some jobs that she would only have otherwise accepted, only for the money. The basic income helps her to step out of her previous work-life balance that felt like being stuck in a “ treadmill” and to take time to focus on what she really finds important in life. She has been experiencing more mental space since she received the basic income and the pandemic slowed down life around her. New ideas emerged such as transforming a few rooms in her house into a community theatre, making a play of her grandmothers’ letters from the Second World War and volunteering in a local hospice. The basic income helped her to get closer to herself, she says, and thereby indirectly closer to the people around her.  
Sebastian Weigel in his garden in Hamburg. November 2020.
For the 33-year old Sebastian Weigel from Hamburg, the basic income came at the right moment. He just quit his job at a real estate company, because he didn’t like the way people were treating each other in that sector. He also works at a laboratory where he analyses COVID-19 samples. Instead of working less, which is often what critics of the basic income expect, he actually works more hours than he did before he received his first basic income. “Yesterday my shift took about thirteen hours. I don’t work because of the money. Due to the pandemic we have a lot of work to do and I don’t want to let my colleagues down.”
Sebastian Weigel during his work at the lab where he analyses COVID-19 samples. November 2020.
The basic income helps him to think about what he would like to do in the longer term. “I have this idea in my mind to start a little shop somewhere in Hamburg where I would sell products from small creative entrepreneurs. My sister is working on some clothes and I have some other friends who create art. Without the basic income, I wouldn’t think about starting something like this. It gives me a free mind.”

Weigel also says he doesn’t feel pressured to find only idealistic causes to spend his money on and the basic income is also something that just eases his life. 
Sebastian Weigel lives with his sister who makes clothes. He thinks about opening a shop for creative entrepreneurs. November 2020.
Sebastian Weigel says: “Donating [to Mein Grundeinkommen] is like paying taxes and the community like a country. If you have the means, you donate and that money goes around in the community again.”

This is how Michael Bohmeher, the founder of Mein Grundeinkommen, thinks a universal basic income should work, as a redistribution of the available money, which should be acquired through taxes. Some critics fear that too many people will eventually stop working, leaving too little people to actually pay taxes. Supporters of the basic income, on the other hand, refer to previous experiments that actually showed people were motivated to work. They also point at benefits like health improvements and lower crime rates, creating the possibility for governments to save money in the long term.

“All other research attempts have some problems in their methodology or analysis,” says Susann Fiedler, psychologist and economist at the Max Planck Institute. “We do have some indications that as a result of the basic income well being increases, less people are depressed and people become more healthy,but research has mostly been done with people who are in need, who go from nothing, to having something.”

In an attempt to find a more definitive answer on how realistic and effective a basic income really is, Mein Grundeinkommen successfully crowd-funded a research project in collaboration with the German Institute for Economic Research, University of Cologne and the Max Planck Institute. The researchers will follow a group of 120 people that will receive 1,200 euros per month for three years, unconditionally. They will compare the found results with a control group to measure how the behavior of recipients of the basic income develops over time. 

Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative

This project is one of the stories commissioned by the Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative, supporting visual storytellers to produce stories reporting on a response to a problem. The initiative is a joint project by the World Press Photo Foundation, the Message in a Photo Foundation (MIAP) and the Solutions Journalism Network