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A Universal Basic Income Would Set the Terms of a Progressive Agenda

On a recent Thursday night at the San Francisco Mint—a building that once housed one-third of the nation’s wealth—27-year-old Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs announced a bold, new plan to meet a critical need in his community: a guaranteed income pilot, the first municipal demonstration of its kind. While recent discussions of similar approaches, commonly referred to as a Universal Basic Income, have been heralded in Silicon Valley as a measure to counterbalance the disruptive impact of technology on workers, the reception among anti-poverty advocates has focused on the potential disruption of the UBI itself on the programs currently tasked with meeting those needs. Acknowledging this tension,Tubbs said that the $500-per-month stipends, provided by the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), would be designed to “enhance” rather than “replace” the existing social safety net.

This careful framing of SEED belies the UBI’s origins as a centerpiece of racial justice and anti-poverty activism. In 1967, the National Welfare Rights Organization—a coalition of thousands of welfare recipients across the country that was led by black women and served as a key partner in the Poor People’s Campaign—demanded “decent income as a right,” emphasizing the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on low-income women. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers both advocated for a guaranteed income and full employment as material preconditions for social citizenship.

Today, however, anti-poverty advocates often regard a universal basic income as a threat rather than an inspiration—a defensive posture that’s been earned, but that also ultimately detracts from the goals the UBI was originally conceived to achieve.

In more recent decades, conservative proposals for a UBI called for funding it by ending more targeted programs to reduce poverty. And today, what’s left of the social safety net is under constant attack, with modern iterations of these calls for “simplification” masking massive cuts to support, all in the name of making programs less prone to “waste, fraud, and abuse.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, has criticized the complexity of current programs as a reason for their dramatic downsizing, while repeatedly suggesting that this system is providing a “hammock” for “inner city” communities lacking a “culture of work.”

These seemingly innocuous, “race-neutral” terms belie heavily racialized narratives about irresponsibility and criminality that have shaped public and political support for the welfare state since its modern inception. And more than that, by framing poverty as a consequence of poor personal choices, rather than as the inevitable byproduct of a wide array of historical and contemporary structural inequalities, these narratives seek to justify a two-tier system of social policy that imposes stigma and restrictions on support going to low-income families, while also quietly subsidizing higher-income households for the same goals with few strings attached.

Over the past two decades, the impacts of these narratives on policy choices to restrict cash access by the lowest income families have been dramatic. According to Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, more than 1.5 million households in the United States are surviving on less than $2 per day in cash per day as a direct consequence of welfare reform in 1996. This measure codified a paternalistic preference for vouchers and in-kind benefits over unrestricted cash. Meanwhile, complex applications, stringent work requirements, and stigmatizing processes like drug tests are used to deter eligible applicants to anti-poverty programs, effectively rationing access to benefits they qualify for. A missed appointment or incomplete form can result in sanctions, which may trigger a simultaneous loss of benefits across multiple programs. And for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF, or “welfare”), initial sanctions are consistently harsher, and benefits lower, in states with a higher proportion of black residents.

In light of all of its fundamental flaws, it’s clear that simply increasing the average TANF grant isn’t the solution to what’s essentially a cash problem. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides a significant cash transfer to many low-income families once a year, but families without children receive a minimal benefit, and the credit itself is conditioned on paid work. In addition, although the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, often referred to as “food stamps”) is an important and effective program, its benefits can only be used for groceries, and these restrictions on choice increase stigma, distort consumer preferences, and lead to accusations of “fraud” when low-income moms exchange their SNAP benefits for a lower level of cash in order to pay for essentials like diapers.

Given the steady erosion and renewed stigmatization of the safety net over the past 20 years, and the dominant role of false narratives in driving these outcomes, merely pushing back against further retrenchment, while crucial, is insufficient. It’s also important to advance a new vision, one that asserts the equal value of all people and, by extension, rejects policies that tacitly endorse a hierarchy of deservingness.

Unconditional cash assistance—à la the Stockton demonstration—could very well be an ideal vehicle for this goal.

In the long term, shifting toward an unconditional, cash-based system would offer a range of improvements: It would enable recipients to make the best choices about how to use their assistance, rather than making those choices for them; infuse cash into households in a predictable, regular, and accessible way; and, if structured as a universal benefit, effectively eliminate stigma by making receipt of assistance part of social citizenship.

A progressively structured UBI has the potential to do all of this—but the devil, of course, is in the details. For example, if not set at a level that would actually enable recipients to meet their basic needs without waged work, a UBI could just subsidize employers that pay a low wage, or those profiting off of the gig economy while offering minimal benefits or protections to their workers. This helps to explain some of the skepticism directed toward the UBI’s most recent champions in Silicon Valley. A UBI also wouldn’t be a substitute for an adequate minimum wage indexed to inflation and for other fundamental labor protections. And perhaps the most crucial design question is how to pay for it; funding through an income tax is an obvious option, though more equitable and transformative proposals have called for funding by returns to capital or divestment from the prison system.

There are also limitations to the potential of a UBI, no matter how well it’s designed, a reality that speaks to the need for a broader set of policies and movements to address economic inequality. On its own, a UBI won’t dramatically affect wealth inequality, including the yawning racial wealth gap that’s only widened since the Great Recession. A complementary proposal that would address wealth more directly is “baby bonds,” a one-time, progressively structured transfer at birth to babies born in families below a certain wealth threshold (e.g., the median), which people could access without restrictions at age 18. Conceptualized by economists Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton, who also propose a modern job guarantee (as an alternative to a UBI), the baby bond would be a “race-neutral” policy that would disproportionately benefit black households—the exact inverse of wealth-building policies historically.

And finally, on its own, a UBI will only do so much to address power. It will give workers a “personal strike fund,” as noted by former SEIU president Andy Stern. Similarly, a UBI would give people who are unemployed more room to find a good position, rather than taking a dead-end job out of necessity, and provide support for largely unpaid labor like care work. Still, it won’t fundamentally alter an economic system predicated on exploitation.

But a UBI will address cash.

And with record numbers of Americans living on less than $2 per day, and nearly half of us unable to come up with $400 in an emergency, that matters. As Tubbs noted when asked about his fears for the project, “I really don’t see any risk.” Even if it fails, he continued, “families got $6,000 a year.” It’s critical that efforts to create a more inclusive and effective approach to poverty don’t play into conservative attempts to pare down the safety net. Yet by defending current programs on terms set by their opponents, we’re already doing that. It’s time, then, for new tactics, ones grounded in a collective vision of a radically different future.


Aleta Sprague is a program fellow with the Family-Centered Social Policy program at New America.