Tag Archives: UBI

About That Social Safety Net…

It isn’t just the relatively recent transformation of the GOP base into a racist cult that  distinguishes  America’s political parties. There are plenty of actual policy preferences that divide today’s Republicans and Democrats.

One of the most significant is their approach to America’s social safety net (such as it is).

Heather Cox Richardson recently quoted Senator John Thune, the second ranking Senate Republican ,for his public confirmation of a Republican plan to hold the needed raise to the debt ceiling hostage– in order to force cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Thune’s statement is consistent with positions advanced by Florida Senator Scott, whose widely-publicized “GOP agenda” included sunsetting both Social Security and Medicare. Richardson quoted research from 2019 showing that Social Security was a “major” source of income for 57% of Americans–and polling showing that 74% of Americans oppose reducing Social Security benefits. Further evidence of popular opinion: deep-Red areas voted for Medicare-For-All in the recent midterms.

Over the years, Republicans have adamantly opposed virtually all efforts to extend the social safety net–they screamed “socialism” when Medicare was adopted, they vowed to “replace” the Affordable Care Act, and the party’s attacks on Social Security have become increasing vocal. Thanks to gerrymandering, the GOP has been able to thwart proposed expansions of the country’s social safety net, and thanks to its increasing extremism, Party spokespersons have become ever more willing to publicly touch that “third rail” of American social policy.

As regular readers of this blog know, my own policy preferences are very different; research has convinced me that we could combat a number of  the social problems we face by instituting national health care and replacing most of our tattered and under-inclusive social supports with a Universal Basic Income. (My extended argument for the latter is here.)

Since I consulted the UBI research, there have been a number of pilot projects testing the concept. The Washington Post recently reported on several of them in a magazine article titled “Universal Basic Income has been Tested Repeatedly. It Works.” The article is lengthy, and it includes descriptions illustrating the ways in which specific individuals benefitted from participation in one of the pilot programs.

If you just learned about guaranteed income in the past few years, chances are it was from the presidential campaign of Andrew Yang, who got a lot of attention for his proposal that the government offer $1,000 monthly payments to all Americans. But versions of this concept had been circulating for decades among academics and progressive activists. And as the country shut down in the early days of the pandemic, the conditions appeared ripe to try something new, something radical. Pilot programs launched in Los Angeles, in New Orleans, in Denver, but also in historically less progressive cities like Birmingham, Ala.; Columbia, S.C.; and Gainesville, Fla. In March 2020, even a vast majority of congressional Republicans backed a $2 trillion stimulus bill that included unconditional cash payments for tens of millions of Americans. Since then, the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income coalition, which grew out of SEED, has swelled to more than 90 members and three dozen programs; a $15 million donation from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey helped fund many of the pilots.

Now, though, as the country emerges from the pandemic, the guaranteed income movement sits at a crossroads. The pilot programs have created scores of stories like Everett’s about how a small amount of money led to massive change in a recipient’s life. And a growing body of research based on the experiments shows that guaranteed income works — that it pulls people out of poverty, improves health outcomes, and makes it easier for people to find jobs and take care of their children. If empirical evidence ruled the world, guaranteed income would be available to every poor person in America, and many of those people would no longer be poor.

As the article concedes, however, empirical evidence is not what moves policymakers–not Republicans, certainly, nor certain Democrats beholden to fossil fuel magnates (yes, Joe Manchin, we are looking at you…)

At the end of 2021, an extension of the expanded child tax credit — which was seen by many advocates as a key steppingstone to guaranteed income — was blocked by a Democrat representing the state with the sixth-highest poverty rate in the country.

As the article notes, without a radical revision of our approach to a social safety net,  “America will continue to be home to one of the worst rates of income inequality of any rich nation in the world.”

Rather than recognizing the numerous social problems that are exacerbated by that inequality, today’s GOP remains fixated on eliminating the minimal security measures that do exist, in pursuit of still more tax cuts for the obscenely wealthy. 

And they are no longer pretending otherwise. 



This Is Encouraging

Regular readers of this blog are aware that I favor a UBI–a universal basic income. I’m certainly familiar with the arguments against it, and even more aware of the “devil in the details” that can make or break most policies. What I find encouraging is the slow but steady spread of pilot programs testing the concept.

The New York Times article at the link reports that at least twenty U.S. cities are currently conducting pilot programs meant to test the idea.

More than 48 guaranteed income programs have been started in cities nationwide since 2020, according to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a network of leaders supporting such efforts at the local, state and federal levels. Some efforts are publicly funded, and others have nongovernmental support. Jack Dorsey, the former chief executive of Twitter, donated $18 million to help the initiative.

At its essence, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a stipend  that would be sent to every U.S. adult citizen, with no strings attached– no requirement to work, or to spend the money on certain items and not others. It’s a cash grant sufficient to insure basic sustenance. (A number of proponents advocate $1000 per month).

Andy Stern, former President of the Service Employee’s International Union, points out that a UBI is simple to administer, treats all people equally, rewards hard work and entrepreneurship, and trusts the poor to make their own decisions about what to do with their money. “Because it only offers a floor, people are encouraged to make additional income through their own efforts… Welfare, on the other hand, discourages people from working because, if your income increases, you lose benefits.”

With a UBI, in contrast to welfare, there’s no phase-out, no marriage penalties, no people falsifying information–and no costly bureaucracy. My more extended arguments for a UBI can be accessed here and here.

For obvious reasons, the programs described in the Times article focus on impoverished Americans, rather than testing universal payments.

Damon Jones, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, who has studied such programs, noted that unrestricted cash — including stimulus payments — was used broadly by the federal government to stem the economic devastation of Covid-19.

“Policymakers were surprisingly open to this idea following the onset of the pandemic,” Mr. Jones said. Now the emergency aid programs have largely lapsed, ending what for some was a lifeline.

A number of conservatives argue against a UBI, asserting that it would dis-incentivize work and/or that it would make more sense to reform programs already in place–something easier said than done. But support for a universal income has not been limited to progressives. Milton Friedman famously proposed a “negative income tax,” and F.A. Hayek, the libertarian economist, wrote “There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend.”

More recently, In 2016, Samuel Hammond of the libertarian Niskanen Center wrote about the “ideal” features of a UBI: its unconditional structure avoids creating poverty traps; it sets a minimum income floor, which raises worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it decouples benefits from a particular workplace or jurisdiction; since it’s cash, it respects a diversity of needs and values; and it simplifies and streamlines bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency.

One of the earliest of the pilot programs was in Stockton, California, and analysis of its results confirmed several of Hammond’s points.

Preliminary research from a pair of college professors, based on the first year of Stockton’s two-year program, found that giving families $500 each month reduced those households’ income fluctuations, enabling recipients to find full-time employment.

Researchers, for example, found that 28 percent of recipients had full-time employment when the program started in February 2019; a year later, the figure was 40 percent.

In one case, a participant had been studying to get his real estate license for more than a year — a pathway to more consistent, higher-paying work — but could not find time to study while piecing together an income doing gig jobs. The money from the pilot program, researchers found, gave him the time to study and get his license.

California–unsurprisingly–has most of the pilot programs currently underway, and the Times reports that Governor Newsom is an advocate of the UBI.

As I’ve previously noted, pilot projects to date have debunked predictions that poor folks would spend the money on drugs and liquor. Instead, most has gone for items like food, medicine, diapers and education.

It will be interesting to see the results of these current pilot programs–and assuming they continue to be positive, even more interesting to see how the nay-sayers respond.



On the Late Show, Stephen Colbert has a recurring comedy bit he calls “Meanwhile.” Not part of the opening monologue, it’s a collection of brief–usually weird or ironic– items culled from the news of the day.

But “meanwhile” also has application to those of us who are fixated on contemporary threats to America’s Constitution and democratic norms. While we worry about the increasingly bizarre behavior of our fellow-Americans who live in a fact-free reality of their own devising, we ignore or just miss the daily challenges posed by technology–everything from the way social media is altering attention spans, to the mounting inability of the nation’s utilities to cope with the damage being done by climate change, to the rush to turn our highways over to self-driving vehicles.

That last item–the (debated) imminence of self-driving cars– is just one element of another under-appreciated threat: the loss of millions of jobs, and the issue of how we will handle the transition to a world where most labor (not just manual labor) is performed by machines. An enormous amount of research suggests that, sooner or later, AI–artificial intelligence–will replace a significant percentage of tasks that now require human performance.

It is easy to “pooh-pooh” those predictions, and to dismiss the likelihood of significant social disruption, by pointing out that someone will have to produce and program those machines, and noting that past technological progress has created as well as destroyed jobs. The cheery optimists insist that nothing is certain, so why worry? (Tell that to the estimated five million people who make their livings driving…)

The Brookings Institution has weighted in. In a paper aptly  titled “Preparing for the (non-existent) future of work,” the researchers write,

We analyze how to set up institutions that future-proof our society for a scenario of ever-more-intelligent autonomous machines that substitute for human labor and drive down wages. We lay out three concerns arising from such a scenario, culminating in the economic redundancy of labor, and evaluate recent predictions and objections to these concerns. Then we analyze how to allocate work and income if these concerns start to materialize. As the income produced by autonomous machines rises and the value of labor declines, we find that it is optimal to phase out work, beginning with workers who have low labor productivity and job satisfaction, since they have comparative advantage in enjoying leisure. This is in stark contrast to welfare systems that force individuals with low labor productivity to work. If there are significant wage declines, avoiding mass misery will require other ways of distributing income than labor markets, whether via sufficiently well-distributed capital ownership or via benefits. Recipients could still engage in work for its own sake if they enjoy work amenities such as structure, purpose, and meaning. If work gives rise to positive externalities such as social connections or political stability, or if individuals undervalue the benefits of work because of internalities, then there is a role for public policy to encourage work. However, we conjecture that in the long run, it would be more desirable for society to develop alternative ways of providing these benefits.

You can download the entire paper at the link.

The likelihood that much of world’s work will eventually be done by machines that don’t get sick, don’t need benefits, and can work 24/7 is part of what leads me to support a Universal Basic Income– an “alternative way” of providing a social infrastructure.

Analyzing America’s current polarization provides another argument for a UBI.   As political rhetoric makes clear, policies intended to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion.  Currently, we’re stoking resentments. (Consider public attitudes toward welfare programs aimed at impoverished communities, and contrast those attitudes with the overwhelming majorities that approve of Social Security and Medicare–universal programs to which virtually everyone contributes and from which virtually everyone who lives long enough  benefits.)

I’ve previously observed that we don’t hear angry accusations that “those people” are driving on roads paid for by my taxes.  Beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma. If work disappears for a significant percentage of our population, an approach that doesn’t require lawmakers to pick and choose who deserves help would be far less likely to tear the country further apart.

Of course, the armed and dangerous Americans who currently live in crazy-town may make attention to these “meanwhile” matters irrelevant. They involve questions of governance that they disdain, because they involve how best to achieve the common good, and they have absolutely no interest in helping anyone but themselves.

Membership Should Have Its Privileges

Remember that commercial for American Express–the one that emphasized that “membership has its privileges”? Several European countries base their social programs on that theory–being a “member,” or citizen, should carry both benefits and responsibilities. (That belief is evidently why the GOP labels them “socialist.”)

In today’s America, radical Right-wingers are intent upon excluding disfavored minorities from the category of “member,” insisting that only White Christians can be “real Americans”–aka members.

That widespread belief that not everyone is a “member” is one of the central flaws of America’s social welfare system–the emphasis on presumed deservingness. You can see it in the dramatic differences in attitudes about means-tested welfare (negative) versus Social Security and Medicare (positive). When a benefit is universal, it doesn’t exacerbate tribal animosities. I’ve never heard anyone complain that “those people” are driving on roads paid for with my tax dollars!

One of the great virtues of a Universal Basic Income is that it would be universal. Everyone would benefit. Not only would it eliminate the costs of America’s enormous welfare bureaucracy and the manifest inequities and humiliations of the present programs, it would avoid the stereotyping of recipients that characterizes such programs.

Non-profit organizations and foundations are beginning to recognize the structural benefits of what they are calling “targeted universalism.” Nonprofit Quarterly –a highly respected academic journal–has launched a series exploring the concept, which was defined in one article as the recognition that our lives are “lived in a web of opportunity. Only if we address all of the mutually reinforcing constraints on opportunity can we expect real progress.”

While “targeted universalism” is not a call for a UBI, it is a call to approach social problems in a holistic way–to recognize the inter-connectedness of adequate housing, nutrition, transportation, and good schools. Addressing these interrelated issues requires income sufficient for basic subsistence–and some fascinating recent research points to  previously unrecognized benefits of ensuring that subsistence.

Several media outlets have reported on a study showing the effects of a basic income stipend on the development of infants’ cognitive faculties. The following quote is from Forbes (hardly a left-wing publication):

Giving mothers an unconditional cash gift of $333 each month may result in their children displaying increased brain activity, according to a study of 1,000 low-income mother-infant groups published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, reinforcing previous research linking childhood poverty to differences in brain structure and function.

A few cities and states are currently running–or have recently concluded– pilot programs on UBIs and, despite Republican warnings that the funds would subsidize sloth, drug and alcohol use, research has found that the money has gone primarily to food, housing and education.

There are certainly principled arguments and concerns about how a UBI might be structured and funded, but it seems beyond argument that–in addition to its other shortcomings– our current social safety net is exacerbating, rather than ameliorating, civic discord.

What would happen if the United States embraced a new social contract, beginning with the premise that all citizens are valued members of the American polity, and that such membership has its privileges?

Contracts–including social contracts– are by definition mutual undertakings, agreements in which both sides offer consideration. In my imagined “Brave New World,” government would create an environment within which humans could flourish, an environment within which members of the polity would be guaranteed a basic livelihood, access to health care, a substantive education and an equal place at the civic table. In return, members (aka citizens) would pay their “dues:” higher taxes (especially on the obscenely rich), a stint of public/civic service, and the consistent discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

In the Brave New World of my imagining, government would provide both physical and a social infrastructure.

Americans are familiar with the elements of the physical infrastructure: streets, roads, bridges, utilities, parks, museums, public transportation, and the like; we might expand the definition to include common government services like police and fire protection, garbage collection and similar necessities and amenities of community life.

The most consequential elements of my imagined social infrastructure– and by far the most difficult to implement–would be national health care and a UBI. Both would require significant changes to some of the deep-seated cultural assumptions on which the current economy rests.

As the libertarian Niskanen Center has shown, if a UBI could be implemented, it would ease economic insecurities, reduce the gap between rich and poor, restore workers’ bargaining power and (not so incidentally) rescue market capitalism from its descent into corporatism and plutocracy.

Membership would have its privileges.

A girl can dream….



Ideology, Meet Evidence

A few days ago, I shared a talk I gave to the Indianapolis Council on Women about the UBI–the theory behind efforts to replace much of America’s dysfunctional safety net with a Universal Basic Income.

There is, as I noted in that discussion, hysterical resistance to such a drastic change. We are, after all, a country that is politically unable to provide even universal access to healthcare. The cost of such a benefit would require us to look critically at America’s multiple wasteful subsidies  and it would require the Uber-rich to pay their share of taxes.

Cost is a legitimate concern. Less legitimate–and far more potent–is the belief that poor people are “takers” who would cease productive labor, neglect their kids, and spend their stipends on booze and drugs. I realize that most of the ideologues who subscribe to this theory are impervious to evidence, but evidence contrary to that belief continues to accumulate. I cited the results of previous pilot projects in the talk I referenced, and subsequently, additional evidence has emerged.

After getting $500 per month for two years without rules on how to spend it, 125 people in California paid off debt, got full-time jobs and had “statistically significant improvements” in emotional health, according to a study released Wednesday.

The program was the nation’s highest-profile experiment in decades of universal basic income, an idea that was revived as a major part of Andrew Yang’s 2020 campaign for president.

Cynics had predicted that free money would eliminate the incentive to work, creating a population dependent on the state. The experiment in Stockton, California that yielded these results was an effort to test that thesis. It was funded by private donations, including a nonprofit led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes who has been a longtime supporter of the UBI.

Run by a nonprofit founded by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, the program included people who lived in census tracts at or below the city’s median household income of $46,033.

A pair of independent researchers at the University of Tennessee and the University of Pennsylvania reviewed data from the first year of the study, which did not overlap with the pandemic. A second study looking at year two is scheduled to be released next year.

When the program started in February 2019, 28% of the people slated to get the free money had full-time jobs. One year later, 40% of those people had full-time jobs. A control group of people who did not get the money saw a 5 percentage point increase in full-time employment over that same time period, from 32% to 37%.

“These numbers were incredible. I hardly believed them myself,” said Stacia West, a researcher at the University of Tennessee who analyzed the data along with Amy Castro Baker at the University of Pennsylvania.

The money came once a month, and was distributed via a debit card. That allowed the researchers to track how people spent it. The largest expense each month was for food, followed by sales and merchandise, which included purchases at places like Walmart and Target, which also sell groceries. The next highest categories were utilities, automobile (gas and repairs) and services. Less than 1% of the money went to tobacco and alcohol.

Given America’s political culture, which valorizes individualism and looks askance at any suggestion that social support might increase–rather than disincentivize–individual ambition, the prospects for a UBI are pretty dim. But there are some signs that opposition may be softening.

Still, guaranteed income programs seem to be gaining momentum across the country. More than 40 mayors have joined Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, with many planning projects of their own. A proposal in the California Legislature would offer $1,000 per month for three years to people who age out of the state’s foster care system. And in Congress, Republican U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah has proposed expanding the child tax credit to send most parents at least $250 per month.

We’ll see how the evidence accumulates…..