Universal basic income (UBI) is a fiscal program where the government gives every citizen a set, recurring amount of money. In the past, the idea has garnered support from across the political spectrum, including from Martin Luther King Jr. and libertarian philosopher Charles Murray.
Widespread job loss and illness caused by Covid-19 have brought UBI to the forefront of Americans' minds again. With millions of Americans unable to work for reasons out of their control, some are seeing the appeal of a fixed income. In 2020, 45% of those surveyed supported the idea of giving all adult citizens $1,000 a month, according to Pew Research.
However, not everyone is a fan of the fiscal program. UBI seems like an unnecessary shortcut, says Matthew Stewart, a philosopher and the author of "The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture." He prefers a more collaborative approach to the nation's challenges.
"I'm not a big fan of things like UBI," Stewart says. "I tend to see that as beholden to the strange libertarian market idea that says we are incapable of coming up with common solutions."
Those with privilege ought to acknowledge their advantages and try to make it so basic needs are not so unevenly distributed, Stewart says. This means advocating for policies that make education and housing more accessible, even if only on a city or neighborhood level.
The privileged class Stewart is referring to includes not only the billionaire class, or top 0.01%, but also the "semi-rich," which is what he calls the 9.9% of people who exist between the top 0.01% and the bottom 90%. "The interesting thing about this class is that it's held even," he says. "People who make it in that group tend to hold on to their cash. People above that have seen their fortunes triple and people below that have seen their wealth decline."
The Americans in the 9.9% might not have the influence of the billionaire class, but they do have many advantages over the bottom 90%. They can buy homes, for example, including in higher end ZIP codes where properties appreciate in value.
"There are quite a few people whose financial stability and net worth has come about through the luck of the real estate market," he says. "Too often they imagine that was from their own genius or their contributions to communities. And then when these same people are asked to make decisions that might make housing more affordable for other people, they slam the door shut."
Instead of hoarding wealth, the semi-rich could work to make their economic stability accessible for more people. "I'd like to see people from this group recognize where some of their advantages come from and make the world a more affordable place," he says.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
Instead of making cash deposits to individuals, the United States could focus on providing necessities and more broadly implementing social safety nets. "We should be investing much more in early education, especially universal pre-K," he says. "I don't think see anything terribly original in that."
Both Oklahoma and West Virginia have implemented statewide universal pre-K. New York City has put into place a local version. During World War II, the federal government subsidized child care to alleviate a labor shortage.
"The answer here is not rocket science," he says.
Proponents of UBI often argue that a fixed income itself is a safety net, and most people use the money they get for food or education. Indeed, that's how most parents have been using the monthly Child Tax Credit they have been getting from the government for the past few months.
The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, a mayor-led program that provided 125 residents in Stockton, California, with $500 per month, found that most money was spent on basic necessities. The typical recipient of the $500 stipend spent 37% on food and over 22% on "sales and merchandise," which includes sales at stores like Walmart, according to data from the program.
Anecdotally, Sukhi Samra, director of SEED, told Grow she has seen UBI allow people to explore more career options. One man who received the SEED stipend was, at the outset, working part time at a distribution center while also holding multiple side hustles, like repairing cars. Now he is a full-time case worker at a nonprofit.
"The only reason he was able to make that career jump was because he was able to take time off to interview and know he wouldn't get behind on his bills," Samra said.
In 2014, Michael Bohmeyer founded My Basic Income, a Germany-based company that has given 943 people 1,000 euros month for one year. Most of the money, he told Grow, was used on education.
To Bohmeyer, UBI is an extension of safety nets that already exist, like Social Security or unemployment benefits. "There already is no connection between labor and having enough money to be able to live," he said. "The idea of basic income is just to expand this situation to everyone."
Pre-pandemic, it was easier to say that those who couldn't afford basic necessities weren't working hard enough. In 2021, that reasoning makes less sense.
"This crisis has made us realize it's not smart to have a society where all the income is based on labor only," Bohmeyer said. "There are times where you just cannot go to work."
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