Is a Universal Basic Income a Key Ingredient?

Andrew Wolk
Jun 17, 2019

When I ponder the to-what-end question that has motivated so much of what I’ve written since launching this blog a few months back, and particularly when I’m working on one of the many projects Root Cause is involved with, I sometimes find myself thinking about including a very different approach to achieving population-level change and reducing disparities, which I see as the ultimate answer to the to-what-end question. I put it this way in my April 8 post: I wonder whether we would see better results from all the capital financial and human that funnels through what some refer to as the nonprofit industrial complex if we simply distributed money directly to people we are seeking to help.

The amount of money that funnels each year just through government programs focused on basic needs is staggering.

For instance, the FY2018 budget for the federal government’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which is the principal U.S. welfare program, exceeded $17 billion. In other words, there’s a lot of money available that could, possibly, be allocated differently and ultimately contribute to more people’s lives improving, from a healthy birth to entering school ready to learn, to quality education, a well-paying job, and healthy and secure aging.

I’m wondering about this out of frustration. It stems from how complex the various systems and programs we have in place have become. Its also a reaction to some of their ridiculous impediments, such as barring recipients of assistance from entering apprenticeship programs that could lead to solid jobs or face losing benefits. It takes so much energy every day to get these systems and programs to work more in unison when it comes to policies, data, and life outcomes. I’m also motivated by the growing realization that meeting basic needs is the foundation for people’s ability to be on and stay on a pathway to lifelong success. Giving people the money they need to ensure they can meet those basic needs might just be an important ingredient to getting and staying on that pathway.

That’s the notion behind whats known as Universal Basic Income (UBI). It has caught my attention because of several local experiments with the concept that are taking place as I write this blog post. I’ll tell you about those in a moment; first:

Let me explain the UBI idea very briefly (because thats all it takes): the government (at whatever level) provides money directly to people as a way to empower them, at least in part, to fulfill their basic needs on their own.

The UBI idea is hardly new; in fact, its been around for decades and is increasingly part of the discourse about fighting poverty. One of the more than 20 announced candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination entrepreneur Andrew Yang, admittedly a very long shot has made it the main issue on which he’s running. (This, by the way, is in no way an endorsement of his candidacy.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about it in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? I am now convinced,” wrote Dr. King, 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. And it has also been promoted across the political spectrum over the years. Milton Friedman, the American economist perhaps most closely associated with the mantra of leaving everything to the free market, advocated for a minimum guaranteed income back in 1962, in the form of a so-called negative income tax. Richard Nixon liked Friedman’s plan and tried to get it enacted in the United States during his presidency. More recently, the noted conservative political scientist Charles Murray, who has argued quite controversially for the elimination of all social welfare programs and whose views on human intelligence have gotten him labeled a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in 2016 that UBI represents our best hope to revitalize American civil society.

As the Economic Security Project, which has been helping fund research and tests of the concept puts it, Now is the time to think seriously about how expanding unconditional cash could work, how to pay for it, and what the political path might be to make it a reality.

I see UBI as a potentially transformative approach precisely because of how it could help people get on and stay on a lifelong pathway to success.

(Although the universal part is, frankly ridiculous.) There’s no way it makes sense to distribute a set amount of cash to people like me who are fortunate to enjoy life circumstances that mean we don’t need that kind of help. But for those who do, it seems like one way to lessen some of the tremendous fear and anxiety people experience when they can’t meet their basic needs without help, reduce the time they have to spend seeking assistance, in turn, give them more time for working and providing for their families.

On top of that, I have to believe that it’s more dignified to have some money show up in an account every month rather than having to stand in a line at some social services agency waiting to do what must often feel like begging for assistance. That money also gives people agency and voice about how to meet their own needs.

So, I’m very interested in what current UBI experiments in Jackson, Mississippi, and Stockton, California can tell us, as they exemplify the promise of UBI. In Jackson, a UBI pilot from Springboard to Opportunitiesnotably, not government funded is providing 15 families with $1,000 cash monthly, essentially doubling their annual incomes and with no strings attached. And a municipal government-sponsored experiment in Stockton, California is underway led by Mayor Michael Tubbsto test UBI by distributing $500 every month on debit cards to some 130 residents, also with no strings attached.

Experiments like these at the local level offer a valuable opportunity to inform important policy and program decisions across the country to deal with increasing income inequality. Watching how these experiments unfold will be critical as part of seeking to realize population-level change and reduce disparities. In my next blog post, I’ll take a deeper dive into what might constitute basic needs in preparation for direct discussions later in the summer with people directly involved in the two UBI experiments.

I’ll end this post with Abbas song, Money, Money, Money. Check out the lyrics, which speak for themselves.


about the Economic Security Project, click here

about Springboard to Opportunities, click here

about the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, click here

about how the Andrew Yang campaign describes UBI, click here