If you were to ask a random person on the street “What is one of the biggest, most persistent social problems in the world?”, it is likely you will hear some reiteration of “poverty” in response. Despite advances in modern society and technology, poverty continues to be a scourge, with wealth gaps in many countries actually widening as opposed to shrinking. This has been the case despite attempts at various welfare programs, including SNAP, housing assistance, and Supplemental Security Income here in the United States. The rhetoric in the U.S. surrounding welfare is clear; recipients are lazy, undisciplined, and require rules and guidelines for their aid to “appropriately” lift themselves out of poverty. This viewpoint is deeply entrenched in our society; our careers inform our identities and we idealize an over-worked, over-exhausted culture. In fact, many forms of welfare are only available if the individual is working; any person not working is considered a “leech” on taxpayer money.
But what if we decided, as a nation, that every single person deserves to live, regardless if they work or not?
What is the Basic Income?
This may sound like a utopian vision, but it is not; the Guaranteed Basic Income (BI) is real, and there are several places throughout the world that are taking advantage of this social support system. The concept of a BI is relatively simple: in lieu of several different social support programs, the government would instead deliver a monthly (or weekly) check to every citizen of a specific age. This income would be granted unconditionally, regardless of employment status, and universally applied to every citizen on top of any wages they earn at their jobs.
The thinking behind this is also relatively simple; if a nation has enough capital to make sure no citizen goes hungry, cold, or sick, then why wouldn’t that nation’s government (which is ultimately funded by the taxpayers of the country) use that capital to end poverty once in for all?
Well, some communities have already answered that question. Earlier this year, Switzerland announced it would be having the first-ever voter referendum on a Basic Income for all citizens this June, and Finland has been experimenting with giving a monthly check to a percentage of its population. The BI is not completely foreign to the United States, either. The small town of Cherokee, North Carolina has also adopted a basic income based on the revenues of the local casino, guaranteeing $10,000 per person, per year.
So far, results have been overwhelmingly positive. In Cherokee, one researcher found out that children who received BI payments were one grade level ahead of their non-BI counterparts, had 40% fewer behavioral issues, and were 22% less likely to commit minor crimes in their teenage years. Research has also shown that a basic income may help achieve gender equality, address issues of migration and immigration, and help create a more sustainable society. And the BI does not seem to affect work ethic; only 2% of people in Switzerland said they would stop working altogether if the BI was adopted. With so many potential benefits, why do many United States citizens and politicians oppose the BI?
Changing the Welfare Rhetoric
Welfare has been stigmatized and racialized in the United States to the point of shame. Welfare programs are wrongly labeled as “free hand outs” to the “undeserving” poor, who allegedly ended up poor because of their own laziness. Despite multiple studies confirming the opposite, the belief in the “Welfare Queen” is as strong as ever. Don’t believe that American’s have a visceral disgust towards welfare? Just look at reactions to Bernie Sander’s proposals for universal healthcare and free public college tuition; commentators utilize the same narrative of young, “undeserving” people getting “free stuff” ad nauseum.
Because of this narrative, welfare has become not just a political but a moral question: who deserves federal assistance? How can we prevent abuses of the welfare system?
This rhetoric makes several assumptions. First, it assumes that the poor are simply poor because they did not work hard enough. Second, this rhetoric assumes that those who need welfare are not capable or competent enough to make financial decisions (hence banning alcohol and tobacco from SNAP, requiring drug testing for welfare, limiting use of housing vouchers, etc.). Third, it assumes that welfare recipients do not want to work, or would be willing to abuse the system to prevent having to get a job. None of these assumptions are actually empirically founded; many of these sentiments were developed in the Reagan years, which saw an intense counter-movement to the social justice protest culture of the 60’s and 70’s.
As many people have already realized, hard work does not always equal success, and thus living in poverty does not mean an individual is lazy. Even without considering the moral implications of the welfare narrative, there are several logistical and practical reasons to consider the BI: Job automation may eventually force us to adopt the BI to protect workers, there is a serious job skills gap due to shifting industries and lack of proper and affordable education, and the labor provided by the marginalized is often undervalued and underpaid (such as care jobs, minimum wage jobs, etc). There are several systemic issues and social institutions that have prevented all sorts of marginalized communities from reaching above the poverty line, and there are many people who are quite literally incapable of working (whether that be physical disability or mental health reasons), that may not fit the criteria of “unable to work” for United States welfare. For all of these reasons, millions of people in the United States continue to suffer in an unfair capitalist game; even for many of those who work, it is not enough to “earn” the living they clearly deserve.
Ultimately, our willingness to adopt the BI is intrinsically tied to the re-definition of welfare and poverty in our society. It is time to end the individualistic, judgmental, and stigmatized view of poverty once in for all, and to replace it with an emphasis on the common good for our community as a whole. The BI will allow for economic freedom unheard of for many individuals, a freedom which will allow them to explore new interests, educate themselves, and better their communities for the sake of bettering their communities, not to survive or ensure a steady flow of capital. Imagine a society where the work we did was not dictated by the best salary or where the money was, but by our passions and deeper yearnings to learn and improve the world.
What passions would you accomplish in the world of the Basic Income?