Y Combinator announces basic income pilot experiment in Oakland

Y Combinator announced today that it would launch its first basic income experiment in Oakland, CA. The startup accelerator began researching the concept of basic income last fall and will soon start paying salaries.

Y Combinator initially said that it wanted to pay basic income to a group of people over a five-year period and study the effects, but now the company has changed course. It will begin the research with a short-term study in Oakland, Y Combinator announced in a blog post: “Our goal will be to prepare for the longer-term study by working on our methods — how to pay people, how to collect data, how to randomly choose a sample, etc.” Depending on how the pilot goes, Y Combinator may continue with the longterm study.

The idea of basic income, which would guarantee a base level of financial support for every person, has gained steam recently. In just a few days, the Swiss will vote on a referendum for basic income. Basic income also has its champions in tech. Y Combinator president Sam Altman has argued that, as technology usurps jobs, the need for a universal basic income will become more pressing.

“In a world where technology eliminates jobs, it will mean that the cost of having a great life goes down a lot,” Altman tweeted today. “And I think we need something like basic income to have a cushion and a smooth transition to the jobs of the future.”

But the concept also has its detractors. One of the biggest questions about basic income is where the money will come from. Y Combinator, with its roster of wealthy investors, may not have to worry about funding its basic income project, but funding is a more pressing concern for governments. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has argued that a government-funded basic income would increase poverty by stripping funding from federal programs supporting the poor and instead inject that money into the middle and upper classes.

“Suppose UBI [universal basic income] provided everyone with $10,000 a year,” CBPP’s Robert Greenstein wrote today. “That would cost more than $3 trillion a year — and $30 trillion to $40 trillion over ten years.” The Swiss government has urged voters to reject the basic income referendum, citing its cost.

But Y Combinator sees the pilot program as a way to model basic income for the future, saying government funding may not be the right approach. Its Oakland research will be led by Elizabeth Rhodes, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Michigan.

“In our pilot, the income will be unconditional; we’re going to give it to participants for the duration of the study, no matter what. People will be able to volunteer, work, not work, move to another country—anything. We hope basic income promotes freedom, and we want to see how people experience that freedom,” Altman said.

The accelerator says it is already working with Oakland city officials and community groups to plan the pilot, which does not yet have an official launch date.