Lorena Schneehagen, a preschool teacher in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who is currently employed, says that the ending of the federal government’s assistance the week of July 27th due to the COVID-19 pandemic will hit her and her family extremely hard. She states that that extra money each week has helped with paying for food and the bills. Lorena is not alone in this fear of what halting assistance will do to the well-being of communities across the country. Around 30 million individuals have received this federal funding since the outbreak of COVID-19 first started ravaging the US, and halting this weekly check would reduce their spending power by around $19 billion per week. As families struggle financially, it is clear that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) measure needs to be implemented in the USA. Andrew Yang, a former candidate for the Democratic ticket for President of the United States in 2020, helped increase exposure of this idea to the general public. During his campaign, Yang advocated for every American over the age of 18 to receive $1000 a month. Yang stated that this extra economic boost to Americans would alleviate the extra worrying that accompanies their everyday lives. While this view of a UBI was met with some criticism, others have encouraged its development, and a conversation has started around its use. A universal basic income will help eliminate poverty, allow room for growth and entrepreneurial work, achieve gender equality, and offer protection against the automation industry, even though some state that a UBI will make people lazier and unwilling to pursue work.
HISTORY OF A UBI
The concept of a UBI has been around for as long as humans have formed clear social networks and societies. Universal basic income stems from the idea that those in a society who cannot provide for themselves should be assisted by those with monetary advantages. This was very clear in the hunter-gatherer era, when groups of people were held together by familial relationships and similar practices across social networks; families would look out for one another and make sure that everyone was operating okay, and families would check in on other families, too.
However, this ideology began to fade when settled agriculture and historical changes like the Industrial Revolution occurred—families reduced their networks to each other or even the individual, breaking apart the idea of looking out for each other. In 1858, Charles Eastman, a hunter-gatherer, talked about the destitution of Boston: “Our great men not only divided their last kettle of food with a neighbor, but if great grief should come to them…they would voluntarily give away their possessions…We could not conceive of the extremes of luxury and misery existing thus side by side.” This quote demonstrates a clear mindset difference between societies that work together and thrive on cooperation and those that are “every man for himself,” compelled by the thirst for luxury and greed.
Other encounters between egalitarian cultures and vastly unequal ones incited the desire for change in the latter societies. Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and a huge proponent of the American Revolution, became fascinated by the Iroquois farming society and attempted to learn their language. He noted that human invention has been a great improvement but has largely led to unbalanced social networks. He proposed that everyone receive £15 when they turn 21 and £10 every year after turning 50. In the past century, the idea for a UBI has been taken up by the left-wing of the political spectrum. Huey Long, a former senator from Louisiana, called for a minimum income of $2000-$2500 a year in 1934. In the 1960s, anthropologists began to extensively document the !Kung people in the Sahara Desert, and this coincided with UBI entering the political mainstream, as Martin Luther King endorsed the idea, and several experiments were done in US states.
ARGUMENTS FOR A UBI
The definition as universal basic income is “a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, recurring payment to every member of society, sized to meet basic needs.”
Proponents of a UBI state that this move would help to eliminate poverty in the US. Economist Friedrich Hayek stated that “There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has…that the security of a minimum income should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom.” This is an argument that is floated around a lot because the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world (by GDP); there is no reason why there should be people who experience homelessness and cannot find a job. The problem is that wealth has become concentrated TOO much in the hands of a few that this wealth cannot be circulated.
Another common argument in favor of a UBI is that granting people more money may incentivize them to start small businesses and move forward with any economic pursuits that they may have. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, said that, “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to empower people to take on more creative, entrepreneurial work.” This is an interesting argument. Giving people a certain amount of money each month would allow them to be ambitious with any goals they might have, which would promote creative thinking and could end up helping the economy in the end (as there would be more small businesses).
Also, some have argued that a UBI would lead to a more equal and sustainable world for both genders; journalist Judith Shulevitz wrote that “The U.B.I. would also edge us toward a more gender-equal world. The extra cash would make it easier for a dad to become the primary caregiver…a mom with a job could write checks for child care and keep her earnings, too.” This idea stems from the fact that many working-class Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and some are faced with the struggle of using their income to pay the rent/taxes/childcare or getting food or medicine. The high prices of these goods force families to make decisions that do not have a good answer. UBI could offer additional stability to families that are facing this dilemma.
Andrew Yang’s biggest argument for a UBI is that it would offer protection against the automation industry: “We are in the fourth inning of automation. Four million manufacturing jobs have been taken since 2000…If we wait any longer, we will be out of time.” This was the defining characteristic of Andrew Yang’s bid for the presidency. He made the argument that the increasing advancements in technology (and the rapidity of them) will end up stealing jobs from Americans. While this idea has been talked about in the past, and machines never end up taking many jobs, it is worth considering and keeping an eye on due to the ever-changing nature of technology; this time could very well be different.
DOES A UBI EQUAL LAZINESS?
Some argue that a UBI would lead people to just accept the money given to them and would encourage laziness and a desire to not contribute to society. The Economist states, “Over time, the stigma against leaving the workforce would surely erode: large segments of society could drift into an alienated idleness. Tensions between those who continue to work and pay taxes and those opting out weaken the current system; under a basic income, they could rip the welfare state apart.” This demonstrates that people in the United States, a country generally deemed to have a good amount of welfare and priding itself on equality, would not enjoy seeing other people not working but still receiving quite a large chunk of money. This could potentially lead to disastrous strikes and riots, and the government would have to rationalize their operations. However, this is simply not the case. Finland began giving 2000 unemployed people a basic income in 2016, and the government conducted a study on this group and a control group of 5000 people who just received their original unemployment benefits. The study found that there was no difference between the two groups in terms of how many days they worked. This demonstrates that people will continue to work and to find their passions, even if they have a basic income source each month; humans naturally desire fulfillment and would not get that from doing nothing.
A universal basic income is needed now more than ever. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague the country, the need for more distribution of wealth to the general populace is more apparent than ever. Doing so would allow families who are struggling to help pay their bills and provide an outlet for their entrepreneurial pursuits, and wealthier families will be likely to spend additional money and continue to fuel the economy. We must continue to vote for candidates who are supportive of a UBI and make it clear that implementing this practice into our society is key for the well-being and success of this country.