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About half of Americans support giving residents up to $2000 a month when robots take their jobs

A guiding robot displayed during International Robotics Exhibition in China this year.
Photo by Anadolu Agenc
A guiding robot displayed during International Robotics Exhibition in China this year.

Nearly half of Americans are in favor of giving cash handouts of $500-$2,000 a month to residents when robots take their jobs.

A survey of 500 individuals in the U.S. released today found that 46 percent of people support the idea of a universal basic income, through which the government gives a cash handout to any resident, irrespective of employment status.

"The general concept of a floor on income is generally acceptable to and popular with voters. This is a solid first step," writes Misha Chellam, the founder of startup-training company Tradecraft and a signatory of the Economic Security Project, a newly founded research organization dedicated to learning more about the implications of universal basic income (UBI). Chellam wrote a summary of the survey results for Medium.

While 500 people is not a perfect representation, there is a reasonable diversification in the ages of those surveyed: 24 percent were over 65, 31 percent were under 40, 16 percent were in their forties and 25 percent were between the ages of 50 and 64.

The survey was commissioned by half a dozen thought leaders including Jim Pugh, the co-founder of Universal Income Project; author Peter Barnes; Mark Gomez of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society; Natalie Foster, Institute for the Future; Misha Chellam and Russ Klusas, the founders of Tradecraft; Roy Bahat of Bloomberg Beta; and Chris Hughes, entrepreneur and philanthropist.

The research joins a flurry of conversations about UBI. The Economic Security Project, co-chaired by Hughes, was announced earlier this month and has so far raised $10 million in private funding to research the practical implications of the idea.

Also, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, said recently that he considers UBI to be a nearly foregone conclusion. "There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation," Musk told CNBC. "Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen."

And this weekend, word came out that Finland is going to run a pilot UBI program with 2,000 randomly-selected individuals.

For this survey, respondents were told that a cash handout of $500-$2,000 a month would not be tied to having a job, could be used on whatever the recipient wanted and that it would be paid for with tax money.

Younger, less wealthy and people of color who responded to the survey were more likely to be in favor of the idea of a UBI, which is typically floated as a solution to the mass unemployment that rapidly accelerating automation trends might bring. Also, those survey respondents who already knew the most about universal basic income prior to the survey were more likely to support the idea, according to Chellam.

"Voters surveyed did not like the idea that income is not tied to work." -Misha Chellam, founder of Tradecraft and a signatory of the Economic Security Project

Three-quarters of survey respondents initially knew either "nothing" or "just a little" about UBI.

"The public at large has not been discussing the concept. It is necessary to raise awareness among the general public for UBI to be politically viable in the coming decades," says Chellam.

When the notion was explained, survey respondents typically had one of two negative reactions: They believed that cash handouts would promote laziness and that paying for the program would going to break the bank.

"Voters surveyed did not like the idea that income is not tied to work," says Chellam. "The laziness argument is one that has hamstrung welfare and safety net efforts for decades."

Likewise, framing mattered. "Social security for all" was more palatable to survey respondents than "universal basic income," Chellam says.

The name of the cash handout may matter less if the country is facing mass unemployment. But barring a crisis, what the cash handout is called and how it's framed can have significant implications to how it's perceived, and how open Americans are to considering what seemed only recently a radical, even impossible idea.