Make Life’s Necessities a Human Right

Free money.

That dismissive phrase sums up the reaction of people whose minds are closed to the idea of creating a Universal Basic Income (UBI) program in our country to give vulnerable workers some economic security.

The “free money” put down is downright insensitive and even cruel in light of the widespread suffering caused by the economic collapse brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. An income guarantee throws a lifeline to those frantically trying to keep their heads above water. But even after the public health crisis subsides and the economy rebounds, UBI not only would provide financial stability for people watching their jobs exported overseas or automated out of existence, it would stimulate the economy by freeing would-be entrepreneurs to leave dead-end jobs and take the risk of starting a business. And it can create an opportunity to replace old welfare programs with a new approach that rewards work.

Think about it. In the 1800s our nation’s economy was mostly agricultural. Then came the Industrial Revolution. People left the land and migrated to cities to work in factories and offices. The transition caused immense economic and social upheaval. Trade unions were formed to give workers a collective voice and unemployment insurance, workers compensation for workplace injuries, child labor laws and Social Security for the elderly all were established to provide shelter from the storm.

A new economic revolution is now upon us. Robots are replacing more factory workers with each passing day. One day soon robots also will be delivering packages, laying bricks, hanging drywall, pouring cement, installing carpet, flipping burgers. Driverless vehicles are coming. When they arrive, all the truck drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, the millions of Americans who drive for a living will have to find another line of work or go on welfare.

Think about it. Those old welfare programs were constructed generations ago in response to the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars on them every year. The way they were set up, recipients have to be poor to get help and have to stay poor to keep it. With the income eligibility thresholds, when you work you eventually reach the point where earning one more dollar causes you to lose the welfare benefits. You come out ahead by cutting back on your hours to stay eligible for the public assistance.

Those whose minds are closed to new possibilities say people will stop working if there is an income guarantee of, say, $1,000 a month. That’s nonsense. Unlike the old welfare programs, with UBI the more you work the better off you are. You can climb the ladder and keep right on climbing. You can’t live on $1,000 a month in any case, you’ll still need to work. But if low-wage employment is all you can find, the security of the basic income payment makes it possible to work for low wages and not be doomed to living in poverty. And if you’ve had a lifelong dream of starting your own business but are stuck living paycheck to paycheck, UBI makes it feasible to climb out on a limb and reach for that dream.

Those with closed minds belittle UBI as free money. It’s actually about freeing people to make a better life for themselves and a more prosperous economy for everyone.

In a single day during the pandemic, America’s richest man got $13 billion richer. Working families lost more than $71 billion in one day of the pandemic. UBI would tip the scales back, especially if it’s paid for by restoring taxation based on ability to pay and requiring the filthiest of the filthy rich to pay taxes at a rate at least as high as during the Eisenhower administration. Another way to fund it is a severance tax on extraction of fossil fuels with proceeds distributed to households as UBI, giving workers peace of mind and a rightful share of this earthly treasure while incentivizing the necessary transition to renewable energy.

We don’t have to jump right in the deep end. We can test the waters first. We could make Wisconsin the first state in the nation to do a small-scale experiment with UBI. Start with 1,000 participants receiving $1,000 a month while being ineligible for any welfare payments. See if any of them stop working, see if they end up better off than the rest of the population. The cost would be $24 million over two years, a minuscule 0.03% of the two-year state budget that’s over $80 billion.

Think about the dividends that tiny down payment could eventually yield.

Mike McCabe

August 6, 2020