Participation Income

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Sonia Bussu:

"Back in 1996 Professor Anthony Atkinson, an economist with a distinguished track record of research into poverty and social exclusion, put forward a proposal for a Participation Income (PI), as a compromise between the aspirations to an unconditional basic income and the political acceptability of the workfare model, which has increasingly become the dominant approach. Like UBI, PI grants all individuals a right to a secure income, but, unlike UBI, it requires that recipients satisfy a participation requirement as a condition of support.

Qualifying forms of participation would be socially useful activities, from caring for an elderly relative to volunteering in a neighbourhood project, engaging in vocational training or studying for an educational qualification. Here’s how Atkinson himself describes his idea:

In my proposal, the basic income would be paid conditional on participation. I should stress at once that this is not limited to labour market participation. While the qualifying conditions would include people working as an employee or self-employed, absent from work on grounds of sickness or injury, unable to work on grounds of disability and unemployed but available for work, it would also include people engaging in approved forms of education or training, caring for young, elderly or disabled dependents or undertaking approved forms of voluntary work, etc. The condition involves neither payment nor work; it is a wider definition of social contribution. (Atkinson 1996, 68–69) According to Atkinson’s proposal, participation would include all forms of paid employment, but also volunteering, full-time education, active engagement in seeking employment, caring for children, the disabled or the elderly. In this sense, the participation income is conceptually different from workfare as the notion of social participation goes well beyond the narrow frame of participation in the labour-market. Like workfare, however, the participation income retains a strong notion of eligibility conditions. In a way, the universal basic income proposal also entails some degree of conditionality, in that normally its supporters suggest it is paid to citizens or residents only. This condition is not at all innocuous, because definitions of citizens can be quite problematic. Who is a citizen? Rights could be narrowed down considerably, depending on which definition we choose.

By the same token, the precise nature of a participation income depends on the sort of activities that policy makers agree satisfy the requirement of social participation. Potentially, though, the participation income could prove even more inclusive than a universal basic income. In Atkinson’s mind everyone would have the opportunity to participate, so his proposal is intended to be socially inclusive.

In a climate of support for cuts to the existing welfare state, these proposals might sound a bit far-fetched. In a context of high supply and low demand in the labour market, however, a debate on whether fare retribution for all contributions to societal wellbeing might prove beneficial from both an economic and a social point of view would be interesting and useful.

The problem with the participation income is that, depending on how we define participation, it could turn into an administrative nightmare. In this respect the universal basic income is a much more straightforward approach: the same basic income for all citizens. Easy (although you have to agree on a definition of “citizen” first). Perhaps the most difficult questions to answer on a participation income relate to the quantity and characteristics of qualifying voluntary activity. How much voluntary activity would someone have to do to qualify for a participation income? Would people seek just enough voluntary activity to get paid? And would that matter? Does getting paid affect the ethical motivations for volunteering? Would it be acceptable to include more political activities, such as participating in public meetings or supporting a campaign, as qualifying participation?" (


Mary Murphy and Michael McGann:

“The case for PI was first made by Tony Atkinson in the mid-1990s, as a compromise between the aspirations to a UBI and the emerging political acceptability of the ‘workfare’ model. It was developed by Robert Goodin as a middle ground between a post-productivist utopia of ‘welfare without work’ and a neoliberal dystopia of ‘work, not welfare’. Tony Fitzpatrick nuanced this as a post-employment (rather than post-work) ‘politics of time’, which seeks to nurture ‘multiple forms of valuable activity’.

Specifically, Post-Productivism seeks to recover time for activities which have reproductive value, such as giving care and sustaining the environment, which can never be fully valued in economic terms. Recognising time poverty and autonomy as central concerns, Fitzpatrick stresses the tensions in balancing time, work and income support, while feminists consistently draw attention to the need for time for care, for both men and women. Seeking a balance, PI would widen the range of activities and contributions recognised as socially useful ‘work’ and provide greater temporal autonomy for individuals to accommodate productive and reproductive time.

PI’s retention of an element of behavioural conditionality, be that to eligibility or entitlement, puts it in tension with the legitimate calls for autonomy at the heart of advocacy of UBI. While Atkinson perceived PI as a universal payment compatible with social insurance, other accounts allow the possibility of means-testing, further differentiating it from UBI.

Atkinson defends conditionality on grounds of political expedience. But it aligns normatively with principles of reciprocity and John Rawls’ idea of fairness in social co-operation: individuals have an obligation to share in its burdens as well as its benefits. Some have understood this to mean a duty to undertake paid work. A much richer understanding of reciprocity would however lead to decoupling conditionality from commodification, so as to nurture myriad socially valuable contributions in line with a capabilities-informed theory of agency.

In contrast to the current (work-related) activity-testing of income supports, PI would open-up the range and variety of options recognised as meaningful contributions. Examples could include participating in education, giving care and forms of voluntary work and political participation which contribute to social reproduction and satisfying essential needs unmet by the market. For example, PI could help co-ordinate environmental reproductive work. This aligns PI with the inherent value pluralism of a capabilities-informed theory of human need already detected in some European social-assistance programmes.

The 2015 Participation Act in the Netherlands, for example, requires claimants to meet social-participation requirements as a condition of receiving assistance. These can be fulfilled through paid work but also volunteering, further education and caregiving. In most instances, however, the range of participation options remains narrow, overly restricting freedom to choose between multiple socially valuable ‘doings’ and ‘beings’.

To avoid reducing PI to a restrictive payment with paternalistic conduct conditions, it needs to be carefully structured to enable participants to choose from wider combinations of contributions. This aligns with Ulrich Beck’s notion of ‘a multi-active’ society, in which social esteem and security are decoupled from employment and in which paid work features only as one form of socially accommodated activity alongside others—including caregiving, voluntary work and political activity. From a capabilities-enhancing social-policy perspective, ‘navigational agency’ emerges as an alternative to the employment orientation of current activation policies.

This means departing from an activation model excessively concerned with transitions from welfare to work. Instead, social policies must focus on enabling people to choose among (and to combine) employment, caregiving and modes of civil and political participation.

Unlike UBI, PI is not neutral about the distribution of care or silent about the importance of configuring welfare to recognise myriad forms of reproductive activity essential to sustaining the environment, civil society, democracy and other generations. If carefully configured, and set sufficiently high in conjunction with access to UBS—so basic needs can be met without reliance on the market—it provides a mechanism for incentivising participation in socially essential work while setting the welfare state upon an eco-social, post-productivist foundation.” (

More Information

  • A defence of participation income. By Cristian Pérez-Muñoz. Journal of Public Policy, Volume 36, Issue 2 June 2016, pp. 169-193


URL = doi

In this article, I argue that a participatory income (PI)—the proposal originally presented by Anthony Atkinson in 1996—can potentially perform better than an unconditional basic income (UBI) in terms of addressing unmet social needs. I explain why we should expect that unmet social needs can be better alleviated by the recipients of a PI rather than by the voluntary actions of UBI recipients. In particular, the argument presented here seeks to develop a particularly forgotten point in the PI debate—namely, the importance of using income transfer programmes as a policy tool to motivate people to engage in socially valuable activities.

Historical Sources

  • "The case for PI was first made by Tony Atkinson in the mid-1990s, as a compromise between the aspirations to a UBI and the emerging political acceptability of the ‘workfare’ model." [1]
  • "It was developed by Robert Goodin as a middle ground between a post-productivist utopia of ‘welfare without work’ and a neoliberal dystopia of ‘work, not welfare’." [2]
  • " Tony Fitzpatrick nuanced this as a post-employment (rather than post-work) ‘politics of time’, which seeks to nurture ‘multiple forms of valuable activity’." [3]