By: Quinn Newman, contributing writer
Topic: Finance and Economics
Issue: Universal Basic Income
Problem: The United States has experienced rising economic inequality over the last four decades. Between 1989 and 2013 median household income only grew by 9% with the wealthiest 1% of Americans owning 35% of the country’s wealth. Additionally, with the federal minimum wage not keeping pace with inflation, weakening of labor unions, technological advancements, regressive taxation, disinvestment of social services, and the rise in globalization and gig economy, middle class incomes have grown at a much slower rate than higher incomes. This concern has provoked deliberation on effective ways to help individuals climb the economic ladder and expand the social safety net. One policy proposal is implementing a universal basic income, which would reform the nation’s welfare system and provide families with fiscal assistance who are in need.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a public program where the government would provide a certain amount of money to citizens each month so they can meet financial needs. Additionally, citizens will have the freedom to choose on how to spend the money. While the original idea can be traced to the work of Thomas Paine and Sir Thomas Moore, recent proposals did not enter public conversation until economist Milton Friedman’s book Free to Choose (1980).
The Province of Ontario planned to implement a UBI pilot program under Premier Katherine Wynn until it was dismantled in 2018 by the her successor, Doug Ford. Despite this, presidential candidate like Andrew Yang have discussed UBI as a viable policy alternative as well as influential entrepreneurs like Elon Musk.
Arguments In Support
Proponents for UBI argue if people had more income to satisfy daily necessities, this would free up more discretionary income, increase aggregate demand, and help spur economic activity. The Cato Institute argues that UBI can produce economic growth for people to sustain themselves financially as they improve their employment skills and contribute to upward mobility. Additionally, UBI would reform our welfare system with it replacing such programs such as TANF and SNAP. This reduction would prevent the creation of potential welfare traps, where recipients may choose to stay on welfare because if they make slightly more than the required means for welfare they lose all their benefits. This would disincentive upward mobility and economic growth. Most importantly, recipients of UBI would have the freedom to choose how to best use the money, as opposed to current means based programs such as SNAP where regulations are in place.
Opponents argue that implementing UBI would expand the welfare state and the cost of the program would exceed the benefits. U.S. debt is currently about $23 trillion dollars and changes to our welfare system could end up incurring high costs which would force the country into even greater amounts of debt. Moreover, Professor Rushkoff of The City University of New York argues that it obfuscates the necessity for change in society and promotes the interests of wealthy corporations who would see it as a way to encourage spending on their products at the expense of public money that can be put towards other areas.
While there has been some mixed results for larger UBI programs, this does not mean that they do not represent a real opportunity to close the most insidious wealth gaps in our country. The recent passage of relief payments across the country has shown that it can be a viable policy alternative. With proper oversight, UBI can also create wealth in communities of color and rural communities. In effect, this policy would be an innovative alternative to combat economic inequality.
Quinn holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Xavier University and is currently a graduate student studying public affairs. His research includes foreign policy, education, and environmental affairs. He can be contacted at email@example.com