Here’s why we need a universal basic income

This year, I was excited to listen to John Manzella speak at the January Series. Since his field of expertise is economics, I was interested in hearing his thoughts on universal basic income ― a policy where everyone receives free money on a regular basis, no strings attached. I proceeded to submit a question about it. To say his answer was underwhelming would be an understatement: he was clearly not familiar with UBI.

Manzella is not alone. When Andrew Yang shared his plan for an American UBI on the presidential debate stage, his fellow Democratic candidates blatantly showed their ignorance and disdain. Several of them laughed at the policy idea. Pete Buttigieg took several seconds to compose himself before admitting to Yang, “It’s original, I’ll give you that.”

Buttigieg was wrong. Universal basic income didn’t originate with Yang. Not even close. In fact, it’s a very old and widespread idea that’s been suggested and supported by well-known historical figures such as Napoleon, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King J.r., and Richard Nixon. But it’s also very contemporary. With the current coronavirus pandemic, continually rising income inequality, and the threat of automation looming in the near future, many argue that putting cash in the hands of the people should be a governmental obligation. 

Critics of UBI claim that it disincentivizes people from working and will result in a smaller workforce. Although this seems like a reasonable assumption, various small-scale UBI experiments have proved it false. In most cases, people do not stop working even when they receive free money. As much as they claim to hate it, people actually like working. In fact, one of the most devastating and debilitating things that can happen to a person is long-term unemployment; economists have discovered that an unemployed person’s mortality risk can increase by as much as 10 to 15 percent for every year they remain unemployed. If people do end up “working” less, it’s usually in order to go back to school or give more time and attention to homemaking or caregiving duties. 

Though they’re unpaid, homemaking and caregiving are arguably forms of work. That is why distributing a UBI makes more sense than raising the minimum wage. The current capitalistic economic system devalues types of labor that are of huge value to society, such as bringing up children, looking after an elderly or sick parent, and creating art. 

My best friend from college dropped out after only a couple months because she was trying to work three full-time jobs to pay for it. She’s since worked a variety of restaurant and warehouse jobs to support herself, but that isn’t her ideal life plan. She wants to be in college. Maybe if a UBI existed, she would be. 

Even if you’re still not convinced that universal basic income is the best way to fight poverty, it’s still worthy of serious consideration. It should not be quickly dismissed without examining the facts. I believe that a UBI only appears absurd because the United States has a history of holding work and productivity in high regard. This isn’t a bad thing in moderation, but it can become so if we start making the mistake of confusing economic value with human value.