Is This Our Guaranteed Income Moment?

Andrew Wolk
May 26, 2020
Check out new episodes of the Finding Common Purpose podcast about food insecurity and guaranteed income amid this crisis. Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

What do Pope Francis, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Murray, and Andrew Yang all have in common?

They have all advocated for some form of guaranteed income as a critical way to help people get on and stay on what I call the Pathway to Lifelong Success. I’ve been writing about this topic over the past year, and in past blog posts have detailed some remarkable experiments taking place in Jackson, Mississippi, and Stockton, California. Both are showing positive results.

I’m no economist, but it seems that the moment for ramping up these sorts of experiments to a much larger scale, across the United States, is upon us. As the New York Times reported on May 9, “At least 20 million Americans are unemployed and a large share of the nation’s small businesses are shut and facing possible insolvency. Policy errors in the coming weeks could turn the 18 million temporary layoffs recorded in April into permanent job losses that could plunge the United States into a deep and protracted recession unrivaled in recent history.” Already, as I write this, the unemployment rate has risen to nearly 15 percent.

The federal response has been a one-time $1,200 check, and not even to everyone who truly needs the money—although plenty of it has gone to people who don’t need it. Most people who received that help have already spent the money. As Susannah Morgan, CEO of the Oregon Food Bank, put it in a recent conversation I had with her, “This is just like nothing I have seen in 24 years in food banking. We are seeing at least a 50% increase in the number of people we are serving, and in some places that number is running more like a 300% increase in the number of people asking for food assistance. It’s incredible. And we are seeing hundreds of thousands of new people asking for food assistance because the schools are closed or their business is closed or they are laid off. So it is not about sickness. It is about the economic disruption caused by our response to the sickness that is causing this.” Other measures such as moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures are only delaying the inevitable. Renters and homeowners alike are at risk of losing shelter.

Meanwhile, as state governments begin to implement their own “reopening” plans with little or no help from the federal government—and with a vaccine at least a year away—most predict a slow recovery. This comes on top of the already vast income inequality and stagnation of progress our country has been experiencing for the past few decades.

So, while everyone’s talking about getting our economy back on its feet, wouldn’t this be an ideal time to test whether a guaranteed basic income might be the path to addressing inequality while also boosting a recovery on the other side of this pandemic? Maybe it could be part of what the Times calls “a bridge through the pandemic recession—one that will carry as many people and companies to the other side of the crisis as possible.”

I also recently checked back in with Aisha Nyandoro, the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities. I had spoken with her last June about her organization’s UBI experiment in Jackson, Mississippi. “Last month,” she told me, “I had more conversations about guaranteed income, universal basic income, and all of that than I have in the last three years. It’s like all of a sudden people woke up and were like—oh, it’s not just liberals who think this is a good idea. It actually could benefit everybody.”

The initial Jackson experiment ended a few months ago. It was a 12-month pilot in which 20 women were given $1000 each month in cash, with no strings attached—thus doubling the income of most of these “Magnolia Mothers.” I caught Aisha at a time when she was fortunate to have just received funding for a second experiment, expanding the experiment this time to work with 100 African-American mothers. I asked how the women from the pilot are fairing in this pandemic.

“This is the reality of the impact of cash without strings,” she explained. “Those women are okay, too, because they had a year to put a plan in place for themselves and their families. They were doing what they needed to do to go back to school, to increase their income, to save, to go into homeownership.”

The conversation made me think of what a guaranteed basic income as part of the recovery response in Massachusetts, where I live, or any other state might do. I can see how it could establish some stability in terrifyingly uncertain times, helping people move from a place of panic to a point of security. It could allow individuals and employers the financial flexibility to reopen the state and move toward economic recovery in a way that’s realistic and doesn’t run counter to what the scientists and public health experts are telling us. And it would shine a spotlight on what it really costs to live, and hence what is really needed to have a foundation to be on a pathway.

There is mounting evidence from the Jackson, Stockton, and other experiments that guaranteed basic income works. It already holds out the promise of being the very paradigm shift away from our broken social safety net we’ve long needed. And it would be a great equalizer—by race, gender, and geography—simply by writing a check. Of course, it will not erase employment discrimination, or solve the gender disparity in paychecks, but it is a start. Perhaps most importantly, it would provide an opportunity for basic income to be a primary societal measure, as I wrote back in March.

I want to leave you with something Aisha said. “If anything, this crisis magnifies the fragility of all of America. We have been so long telling this narrative that it’s just the brown people and people of color and black people who are poor and struggling. This virus has pulled back the curtain on our dirty little secret: that most of America is struggling. It has sped up the conversation rather swiftly, which is good—well, I hope it’s good.”

So do I Aisha, so do I.