The persistent economic zeitgeist of the United States has been one of self-sufficiency: The market is the grand equalizer, and success will come as Americans pull themselves up by their bootstraps. As a nation, we’ve largely accepted this system as fair—extending equal opportunity to all. Inequality, by extension, is often explained away by “failure”: There are those people who make “bad” decisions and who are, as a result, poorer than those who make “good” decisions.
Sure, government assistance programs, as well as philanthropic projects, are aimed at helping the poor. But to qualify for these programs, individuals must typically jump through hoops even to obtain meager financial assistance. On top of that, this assistance is usually accompanied by restrictions on how money can be spent. There is, once again, an assumption that low-income individuals are at fault for their status, and that opportunities for help must be hard-earned.
But increasing troves of evidence show just how far this logic doesn’t comport with reality: We assume free and fair markets, yet income inequality runs rampant. In consequence, the very way we think about our economy must change if we want to fix the problems plaguing American society.
That was the point made by Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook and the author of Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn, at a recent New America event, where Hughes grappled with how we might re-conceptualize how our economy ought to run.
On the one hand, this perhaps seems like an over-idealized discussion. And indeed, many people reject the underlying premise: that our economy can be changed. Hughes, though, disagrees. “So many people talk about the economy as if it’s something that just happens,” he said. “It’s in fact exactly the opposite. We’ve designed today’s economy through a whole host of decisions, starting in the late ’70s and into the ’80s and then certainly continuing through today, that make it possible for a very small group of people to get enormously wealthy.”
The bottom line, at least for Hughes, is that our economy was explicitly designed to exist as it does today. For instance, when we compare the American economy to that of other countries, as people often do, we see that economies can be modeled quite differently. Through tax code reforms and other substantive policies, our political leaders have chosen this system, one that disproportionately distributes wealth.
But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed.
Of course, fundamental change doesn’t happen overnight, but a new government solution, Hughes argues, is as simple as money. “Cash—dollar for dollar—is one of the most, if not the most, effective intervention out there, not just to empower people to follow their own dreams, to make their own choices, but also on the data: health outcomes and education outcomes,” he said.
What kind of cash? A universal basic income (UBI), which Hughes argued could be a realistic to circumvent the pitfalls of our present economy, while also lifting people out of poverty and stabilizing the middle class.
Hughes hails from a philanthropic background, but, over time, he said that he began to believe that policy shifts and a government-provided UBI could be a much more viable solution than philanthropy; political polarization is rampant, and such an investment in what many disparage as welfare seems impossible. Hughes contends, then, that his system is more practical: It works in tandem with existing elements of the social safety net in order to provide services.
Hughes’ version of a UBI is modeled on the current Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) system, which is the world’s largest cash-transfer program. And if followed through, the government would provide $500 per month to those who make less than $50,000 per year.
This, Hughes acknowledges, isn’t a true UBI. But in conjunction with new policies, such as increasing tax percentages for those who earn over $250,000, it’s possible that it’d make a difference for those in need. “We very well may need a UBI in 2030 or 2040, but my view is that we should start with a guaranteed income for the people who need it most, as a kind of foundation that’s very much possible to pay for in the here and now,” Hughes said.
The EITC may seem like an easy comparison because it provides financial support to all Americans, but this support is conditional—on having a traditionally recognized job. What’s long been considered “traditional,” however, isn’t reflective of employment today. According to Intuit, 34 percent of the workforce is now part of the gig-economy, and this amount could increase by nearly 10 percent within the next few years. As work itself is changing, UBI, it seems, is becoming a necessity, making up for what the EITC can’t provide.
This should be taken even further, though, for the sake of those who work every day but who also go unpaid and unrecognized: students, child caretakers, and many more. Panelist Darrick Hamilton argued for a federal guarantee to recognize these pivotal positions in American society.
“We’d offer individuals engaged in elder care and childcare the dignity of a wage that’s above poverty,” he said. “The jobs would provide a public option to a private sector that over time has been able to usurp more and more of our national income in the form of profits and dividends.”
For supporters, the case for a UBI is a case for freedom. Because it supports a vision of financial autonomy. A vision in which people who’ve been stripped of agency can reclaim it. A vision in which no one needs to choose between this week’s groceries and this month’s rent.