Back in early 2020, when Karen Schneeweiss would arrive home from her job at a small German theater, she would often have to answer some 50 emails from her other jobs at two sailing schools. An animated actress, Schneeweiss, 49, took on these extra gigs to help pay her monthly bills. Pulled in multiple directions, she believed she would never have the time to truly focus on her acting. 

Little did she know that she was about to receive a prize that would change all of that: a fixed monthly income of 1,000 euros that would allow her to pursue her creative dreams. 

basic income
Karen Schneeweiss wanted to devote more time to acting, but held jobs at two different sailing schools to help pay her monthly bills.

Schneeweiss receives a basic income from the German organization Mein Grundeinkommen (My Basic Income). Founded in 2014, the initiative organizes periodic raffles to randomly select people — regardless of age, background, current income or nationality — to receive regular no-strings cash payouts for 12 months. Mein Grundeinkommen’s founder Michael Bohmeyer got the idea for the raffles after selling his successful tech startup in 2014 and receiving a monthly guaranteed income of 1,000 euros as a result. Having a constant flow of unconditional cash made him feel less stressed and more creative. He started wondering how he could share his experience and, in 2014, started to crowdfund basic incomes for others.

Since then, 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. Many are people like Schneeweiss — folks who aren’t poor, but who nevertheless struggle to achieve their dreams amid ever intensifying demands from jobs, families and life in general.

basic income
Many people who receive a basic income from Mein Grundeinkommen aren’t poor, but nevertheless struggle to achieve their dreams amid ever intensifying demands from jobs, families and life in general.

The idea of a universal basic income is nothing new. For centuries, philosophers, economists and politicians have dreamt of a society where people could work less while maintaining a decent standard of living. Since the 1970s, small-scale experiments in various forms have been conducted in Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Canada, the U.S. and South Korea. Mein Grundeinkommen wants to add a new chapter to the existing body of research with a rare example of community-led, completely unconditional basic income.

With global crises putting pressure on societal supports, the work suddenly feels timely. Last year, researchers from the OECD published a report calling for bold new investments in long-term wellbeing. “We need to look beyond maximizing people’s wellbeing today,” the OECD writes, and address the “storm clouds that gather on the horizon, mainly from environmental and social challenges.”

The OECD found a global increase in wellbeing over the last ten years, defined according to over 80 indicators in categories from health to income to civic engagement. But it also found that this rise will not be enough to sustain people’s wellbeing in the long term. Almost 40 percent of the households are still financially insecure. The average death toll from suicide, alcohol and drugs is now six times higher than the death toll from homicide. And support networks are under strain — people spend an average of only six hours per week interacting with their families and friends, a tiny fraction of what they spend working, and half an hour less than ten years ago.

basic income
Schneeweiss grew up in communist East Germany, far from an ideal system but one in which she says “money was not so important.”

Schneeweiss recognizes some of these trends in her own community in a small village in the county of Brandenburg, an hour outside of Berlin. She says people spend less time with each other, take on several jobs at the same time and are more afraid to lose those jobs than they used to be. “I grew up in the DDR, where it was very different and certainly not only positive,” she says. “But money was not so important then and people had a lot of time left to spend with friends. Today you are restricted in your freedom by the constant need to earn enough money to pay your living.” 

With her basic income, Schneeweiss can now turn down some work that she previously would have accepted only for the money. The basic income helps her step off the treadmill that defined her previous work-life dynamic and focus on what she finds important in life.

This is exactly how Michael Bohmeher, the founder of Mein Grundeinkommen, thinks a universal basic income should work. It wouldn’t cost much, he believes, as it is simply a redistribution of the available money, which would be acquired through taxes. Critics contend that free cash would encourage people to stop working entirely. But previous experiments in Finland, Canada, Iran and India show that basic incomes can actually motivate people to work