Universal Basic Income

Universal basic income (UBI) is an economic policy that guarantees each governed citizen a periodic sum of money, no strings attached. Unlike other types of social security, every person can receive UBI benefits regardless of factors like employment status or income. Most recently, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang used his platform to push UBI into the political spotlight. UBI has since risen in popularity and has gained even more public attention and support during the coronavirus pandemic, which has left millions of Americans jobless.

In light of the demand for unprecedented economic relief, Congress has passed UBI-like aid packages such as the CARES Act, making this period of uncertainty a testing ground for UBI. Policymakers should try viewing this pandemic as, among other things, an opportunity to observe the effects of UBI experimentation in the United States. Although COVID-19 will become history one day, the existing issues with social safety net programs will persist even after this pandemic, so the outcomes of UBI-like aid packages should be considered useful for future reference.


UBI And Existing Societal Issues

The pandemic has exposed gaps and inequalities in existing social safety nets, with low-income and communities of color disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Workers deemed “essential,” such as nurses and mail carriers, are still working despite low wages and limited benefits, not to mention increased exposure to the virus. Even in a world without COVID-19, Americans still face issues that can be addressed by a UBI, including income inequality and poverty. Giving poor people the resources to improve their situation enables them to make smarter decisions; a basic income would ensure that each citizen has enough basic economic security to set time aside to interview for jobs, leave an unhealthy relationship, seek help for mental health or substance abuse, and ultimately make a better life for themselves. For instance, Alaska’s UBI, known as the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), comes from the state’s mineral royalties and has reduced the number of people in poverty across Alaska. Furthermore, roles like that of caregivers and homemakers are important, but they are often unpaid and undervalued. A UBI could empower people, especially women, in those roles. 

Before the pandemic, the idea of a UBI seemed neither universal nor popular among Americans. People doubted Andrew Yang’s campaign for centering around a UBI as a means of addressing 21st-century issues such as technological unemployment. However, COVID-19 has transformed the political palate, with more Americans receptive to UBI amid unprecedented economic challenges. 


Economic Relief Amid Pandemic

Since March, Congress has sent each adult a one-time check of up to $1,200 and weekly unemployment benefits of $600—which ended in July—through the CARES Act in hopes of mitigating economic hardship. In a sense, these aid packages have become unintentional trial runs for UBI-like policies, since periodic coronavirus stimulus checks resemble that of a basic income. So far, the results have been favorable. A recent Yale study observed that after the passage of the CARES Act, there was no correlation between increased unemployment benefits and reduced employment, addressing the common criticism that benefits discourage people from seeking work. Instead, expanded benefits for unemployed Americans, coupled with other stimulus packages, have actually helped apartment households meet rent deadlines. Therefore, coronavirus stimulus checks have shown that UBI-style programs can effectively provide Americans economic relief without sacrificing work incentives. With Congress passing UBI-like acts to support Americans, policymakers should seriously consider the effects of these policies as the results of a UBI trial run.


The Pandemic And The Future Of UBI

Some argue that UBI is only rising in popularity among lawmakers and the public due to unprecedented economic hardships caused by the pandemic, which is considered a temporary circumstance. Therefore, they suggest that the effects of UBI-like policies during this pandemic cannot be used to justify or support a future UBI program. However, crises—such as this pandemic—often exacerbate and expose problems that have always existed, and will continue to exist even after the world recovers. Issues including poverty, homelessness, and income inequality existed before the pandemic made them even worse. Thus, should past and future coronavirus aid packages influence those factors, they would demonstrate valid effects of UBI-like programs on measures of societal well-being. 


UBI In A Post-Pandemic World

While the pandemic can be considered a temporary crisis, the economic disadvantages and existing safety net issues it has exposed are not. For many workers, staying home out of precaution simply isn’t an option when their income is on the line. Low-income and communities of color have historically been hit harder by crises than more affluent communities, and this will unfortunately still be the case even after COVID-19. Therefore, the effects of UBI-like economic relief during this time are valid and should be considered applicable when considering a post-pandemic UBI program. Policymakers should view this period as an opportunity to experiment with and observe UBI in action, given Americans’ increasing need for economic support.