Thanks to COVID-19, Universal Basic Income is a Thing Again (Video)

Former Democratic presidential candidate–now CNN political commentator–Andrew Yang had a unique signature issue among the other presidential contenders with whom he shared the stage.

He wanted to give every American $1,000 from what he called the “Freedom Dividend.”

But the “Freedom Dividend” concept is not unique.

The idea of a “universal basic income” (UBI) actually originated in this country via Thomas Paine, who called for in his 1797 essay “Agrarian Justice,” “a national fund making payments of 15 pounds sterling to each adult over 21 years old.”

British philosopher Bertrand Russell supported it, as did former Louisiana Governor Huey Long, urging us to “Share the Wealth.”

In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective–the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

In the 1970s, even Republican President Richard Nixon’s plan for a partial basic income passed the House of Representatives before failing in the Senate.

By that point, basic income was no longer a bleeding-heart leftie’s utopian fantasy; myriad notable economists theorized its impact on societies the world over.

Writing for Jacobin magazine, Peter Frase explains UBI:

“Let’s begin with the U, for universal or, in some versions, unconditional. For the originators of the UBI idea, it was crucial that cash payments be conceived as universal rights not tied to work or any other condition…Then let’s center the Basic part. One of the principles of UBI, at least in its more radical incarnations, was that it was to be sufficient to cover a person’s basic needs, at a livable if not luxurious level, without any other source of income.”

Now that the country is gripped in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic at the same moment its economy is in free fall, myriad conservative lawmakers are being forced to embrace what they previously decried as the “evils of Socialism.”

As Congress has now settled on a $2 trillion package to help mitigate the economic havoc, UBI doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Consider the agreement reached in Congress Wednesday to cut $1,200 stimulus checks to most individuals and small-businesses.

Based on households’ or individuals’ 2018 tax returns–unless they already filed for 2019– married couples will get up to $2,400, $500 per child.

Payments will be less for those making more than $75,000.

Individuals making more than $99,000 and couples earning more than $198,000 will not receive checks.

Earlier this month, as COVID-19 cases exploded, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) included UBI in a list of necessary measures.

As hard as it may be to fathom, Republican Utah senator and 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, actually supported sending everyone $1,000.

Democratic presidential candidate, Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders raised it to $2,000–100% of unemployment benefits–in monthly cash payments.

Peter Frase continued:

“We should recognize that if the checks go out, as it looks likely they will, they won’t constitute an Income, in the sense of an ongoing flow of money we can indefinitely count on into the future.”

He added:

“A thousand dollars a month is, for almost anyone in the United States, probably not going to be that kind of radical UBI, although we shouldn’t underestimate how fundamentally life altering it would still be for a lot of people. In that sense, liberals are right to say that that $1,000 or $2,000 a month isn’t enough, even if they’re wrong to say it’s a bad idea in itself. Dealing with this crisis in a serious way means dealing with the need for guaranteed paid sick leave, free health care, suspending rent payments, debt forgiveness, and much else.”

Opponents of UBI argue handing people unearned cash will make them“lazy”. They ask why people should work if the government is just going to pay them regardless.

We don’t need to look to other countries for evidence of how fallacious those claims are.

Stockton, California is the first American city to institute UBI.

Since February 2019, 125 of its residents receive $500 a month to spend any way they choose.

University of Tennessee College of Social Work assistant professor, Stacia Martin-West, explained:

“If you give people free cash, how do they spend it? They’re very rational about it, and they make great decisions.”  

Stockton mayor, Michael Tubbs, added:

“Everyone we talked to, there was a different way they would use $500, and they all made sense. There was no way, as a government official, I would be smart enough to think of all that.”

Another claim from opponents may be that people will simply spend the government’s money on drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, vapes, gambling, or any other conceivable harmful habit.

Most handed a couple hundred or thousand dollars a month wouldn’t run out and spend it on such things.

They might be able, though, to make that extra mortgage principal payment.

They might be able to buy new cars or afford the repairs on their current ones.

They might be able to pay for a child’s braces, or take the family on a much-needed vacation.

One Stockton citizen, for example, used the money to pay for dentures.

Many refer to now having the money to buy their children things they previously could not afford, like sports uniforms or prom dresses.

Until college is offered tuition free, they might even be able to use some of that additional disposable income on education, thereby improving our profit potential and standard of living.

Consider as well those of us who may be working occupations we despise simply because they’re lucrative.

A Stockton resident was able to take time off work to interview for a better job with more pay and fewer hours.

Some now can move safer neighborhoods.

The majority, however, spend their money on food.

Concerning the current crisis, Tubbs said:

“We’re in an unprecedented crisis, so we have to have big thinking. This is a New Deal type moment, in terms of the recession that’s bound to come from this public health epidemic, which we haven’t seen in at least a century.”

Far from a panacea, UBI, coupled with a federal jobs program, has the potential to reinvigorate the economy and our lifestyles.

As we jettison jobs in this current crisis–some that may never return–we need to do something progressive to keep the economy humming and people secure.

In light of the mess we’re in, conversations about it are resuming.

Could we see it nationwide within our lifetimes?

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Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, Liberal Nation Rising, and Medium.