We Must Replace Job with Basic Income as Our Sector’s Primary Measure

Andrew Wolk
Mar 20, 2020

Crises reveal vulnerabilities in societies more than anything else. The outbreak of COVID-19 is already uncovering just how wrongheaded the United States has been about what it takes for people to get by each day and how what we’ve always used to measure success, having a job, is horribly flawed.


While our sector has gradually become better at measuring outcomes, that doesn’t really matter if we’re not measuring what matters most. It’s a failure with real-life consequences and keeps us off from doing the work that will genuinely ensure people’s basic needs are met, reduce disparities, and help get them on the Pathway to Lifelong Success.


I’m advocating for one primary indicator of lifelong success that all other indicators would support along each part of the pathway. Our sector needs a measure that can aggregate data and give us a real picture of whether people are at a population level making genuine progress. That measure is basic income.


The private sector long ago figured out that net income, the amount of revenue left after subtracting all expenses, taxes, and costs is the best measure of a company’s sustainability. Seeking to increase net income drives almost everything the private sector does. Other indicators say, lower costs, more rational spending on expenses all exist to feed into that primary indicator.


A measure similar to net income makes sense for our sector, too basic income. Using it would help correct the errors that flow from the primary indicator we use today, jobs which just about everyone in the United States hears about in the media and talks about when the Labor Department releases its Employment Situation Summary early each month, but that can actually matter little or even not at all. After all, simply having a job is no guarantee you can meet your basic needs. That’s made obvious in my interview with Susannah Morgan of the Oregon Food Bank that was also just released as a podcast. Susannah told me that in 2019 they served emergency food to more than 20% of the state’s population including lots of employed people.


Imagine, instead, seeking to increase basic income as the specific driver of almost everything we do. Other indicators say, access to food, housing, health care all would be monitored to feed into the one primary indicator, basic income, that sets a foundation for people to be on the Pathway to Lifelong Success.


We know that of all the things getting on and staying on the Pathway to Lifelong Success depend on, the most important is having basic needs met. There are really only three ways that can happen, as I explained in a blog post last July, Just What Are Basic Needs in the 21st Century?: the government or some nonprofit provides some or all of what we need; we earn enough to take care of them ourselves; or, in a tiny portion of cases, we inherit enough to sustain ourselves forever. In our economic system, were expected to find a way to provide them ourselves at least those that don’t come in the form of community-level services such as schools or drinking water. If the social safety net were reframed to be about meeting basic needs so everyone can get on the pathway and stay on it, we could begin to calculate basic income as the combination of wages and what the safety net provides.


If we began to calculate basic income this way wed be able to identify very clearly the difference between what people can provide for themselves and the gap that one would reasonably expect any civilized society to fill. Otherwise, we must acknowledge that as a society we’ve decided to accept a harsh reality: some of our people will never be able to get on and stay on the pathway and we’re not going to address our societal failure head-on.


In 2017, Root Cause conducted a study of economic mobility for the Boston Chamber of Commerce. We figured out what it takes to meet basic needs for a family with two children and uncovered that 59% of families in Boston overall were not earning what we called a family-sustaining wage the amount of money needed to pay for their basic food, housing, clothing, medical, and transportation needs. Not surprisingly, while this shortfall affected only 20% of white families, the figure for Latinx families was 66% and 50% for black families.


The lesson I take from this study is that using a people-centered indicator such as basic income will allow us to focus on actions our sector can take to make an actual difference in people’s lives. If we did that, my guess is that there would a lot of changes to the ways we approach work in the education and economic development fields.


It turns out it’s pretty easy for you to know what basic income (again, that could be wages plus whatever supplements those wages) people need to meet their basic needs in your community. Take a moment and go to the Living Wage Calculator developed by Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier at MIT. It can provide you with the wages in your community for families of varying sizes. And it compares your results to the national poverty wage and the minimum wage in that location and more. I guarantee that the results will blow your mind!


As the government grapples with the right actions to take during this national emergency, various proposals are being floated for sending people checks ranging from the White House proposal for two checks beginning in April, perhaps of $1,000 each, to calls for instituting what would effectively be a universal basic income like what Andrew Yang was advocating during his presidential campaign and I wrote about in a series of previous blogs. Had basic income already been our primary measure, imagine how much more straightforward it would be to figure out the best next steps.


And now for a song that speaks for itself during these uncertain times: Life is a Ride.