Is Universal Basic Income poverty’s silver bullet?
I was trying my best to work off the box of cookies I had eaten earlier in the day when a surprising video popped up on my newsfeed — a clip about universal basic income. As someone who was trying to bike their way out of caloric purgatory, I of course was interested in anything that could keep my mind off of the pain I was feeling. What ensued was a barrage of information explaining how a universal basic income would be the solution to the country’s poverty problem. So, if the claims about it are to be believed, why is there so little buzz around this idea?
Well to start off, what exactly is universal basic income? Universal basic income, or UBI, can be broadly defined as a variety of government programs that provide monetary aid to citizens without any strings attached. You may have heard of Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate who built his campaign off of this very idea. Yang wants to introduce the “freedom dividend,” which would guarantee every adult over the age of 18 a monthly income of 1,000 dollars. I use this example solely because it has been garnering the most media attention, but I want to stress that this is just one way UBI could possibly be implemented.
Many researchers are now looking into UBI as a solution to the growing fear of rapid job loss that comes with the advent of smarter and more advanced artificial intelligence. The BBC reports that by 2030, 800 million jobs worldwide will have been taken by autonomous robots. This report also mentioned that it is predicted that one-third of the United States’s workforce will need to be retrained for another job. Another reason people are hopping on the UBI bandwagon is because of the rise of income inequality in America. Take Boston for example: the average net worth of a white household in the Boston area was estimated to be $247,000, while nonimmigrant African-American household only had an average net worth of $8, according to the Boston Globe.
After combing through all of these statistics and research articles, I found myself becoming more and more disheartened. It seemed to me like the U.S. is the character in a movie who is desperately trying to row against a super strong current to escape the waterfall looming in front of them. Why were so many prominent people, such as Elon Musk, Martin Luther King Jr. and nobel laureate Milton Friedman, convinced that universal basic income could fix such a mess?
Let’s say the United States did choose to give each legal adult 1,000 dollars a month. This number is chosen specifically because 1,000 dollars a month, or 12,000 dollars a year, is the amount needed to be above the poverty line in the U.S. This “cushion” could give disadvantaged adults the chance to go back to school, work full time and maybe even start their own business. What I mean by “work full time” is that many adults who receive welfare actually have to cut back the hours they work because if they receive even a dollar over the cutoff, they lose all of their welfare benefits. This leaves these people actually worse off because working full time leads to less money to support themselves than if they were under the welfare cutoff line. Even with welfare, the amount of money they get is barely enough to keep their head above water. These adults are trying their best to live and contribute to society, but the burden of poverty is just too great for any one person, no matter their work ethic.
Now add 1,000 dollars to the equation. This stable source of income allows one to work as hard as they can to better themselves without fear of monetary retribution. Any other work that person puts into improving their situation financially is always rewarded and leaves more money in their pocket.
But just like with welfare, universal basic income is scrutinized as being yet another handout and that people would use this money frivolously or stop working all together. A study conducted by the World Bank in 2013 wanted to challenge this assumption. The researchers gave individuals experiencing poverty cash and studied if those individuals spent the money on booze and tobacco. The answer was a resounding no. Instead, the reverse was found to be true when further studies were conducted. As for the idea that people would stop working all together, this is also just another false claim that stems from the stereotype of a lazy welfare recipient. Alaska already has a UBI-like program in place, and after many years it has seen no discernible effect in its the rate of employment.
How in the world would the United States pay for what can only be described as the most ambitious social policy program ever taken on by any modern government? There are a lot of answers out there to this question, and I will be the first to admit that I am no economist. Some theories have been proposed such as cutting all welfare programs and putting that money towards UBI, or taxing the rich extensively to close the wage gap that I mentioned before. What I do know, however, is that the money is there — there are proposals for UBI that address this issue already, and there is no single answer. The problem is if we are willing to make the changes necessary. This is not a question of creating new money for this policy program, because that would just lead to inflation. Rather, this involves redistribution of existing wealth on a scale that has never been attempted before. Chicago, cities in California and even the country of Finland are attempting to implement some form of universal basic income as I write this. Time is ticking. The income inequality gap is just growing wider and more and more people are losing their jobs to robots with each passing day. Universal basic income may be our only shot at keeping the United States afloat.