The onset of the 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic led to a marked increase in positive
discussion of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in political and media circles. However, we do not
know whether there was a corresponding increase in support for the policy in the public at
large, or why. Here, we present three studies carried out during 2020 in UK and US samples.
In study 1 (n = 802, April 2020), people expressed much stronger support for a UBI policy for
the times of the pandemic and its aftermath than for normal times. This was largely explained
by the increased importance they attached, in the pandemic context, to a system that is
simple and efficient to administer, and that reduces stress and anxiety in society. In study 2
(n = 400, May 2020), we pitted UBI against a conditional targeted social transfer system.
Preferences for UBI were stronger for pandemic times than for normal times. This was
partially explained by a number of perceived advantages, such as simplicity of administration
and suitability for a changing world. In study 3 (n = 397, September 2020), we found that the
headline results of studies 1 and 2 persisted six months after the onset of the pandemic, albeit
with attenuated effect sizes. Our results illustrate how a changing social and economic
situation can bring about markedly different policy preferences, through changes in citizens’
perceptions of what is currently important.