COVID-19 Is Helping to Make the Case for Universal Basic Income

The pandemic has exposed the searing need for direct cash grants to Americans.

Most conservatives had hoped that Donald Trump’s fluke 2016 election would be the harbinger of a new era of conservative backlash against supposed “liberal overreach.” But ironically enough, not only has Nixonian silent majority backlash not materialized, the Trump era has actually shifted the popular policy window much faster to the left than might have been possible under more “normal” governance. This is partly due to horror at the openness with which Republicans have embraced sexist white supremacy; but it’s also partly due to the fact that recent events and economic trends are demonstrating just how inadequate our current systems and policies are in addressing the needs of the 21st century society and economy.

For instance, Trump’s open racism has forced even white suburban America to confront the reality of racist policing and led to a popular consensus around police reform; the inadequacy of the Affordable Care Act combined with Trump’s desperate attempts to roll back even its meager protections have pushed the window heavily toward Medicare-for-All;  aggressive action to combat climate change is increasingly at the top of the Democratic agenda; and so on. Young people under 45 have moved especially far left, with most supporting openly socialist candidates–but even “moderate” politicians like Biden are touting platforms well to the left of Clinton 2016, which was itself well to the left of either of Obama’s policy platforms.

But in few policy areas has the leftward shift been more remarkable than on Universal Basic Income. Once considered a fringe far-left and far-right proposal of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most socialist platform and Milton Friedman’s most libertarian one, the policy has moved from unheard-of to unthinkable to unrealistic to active experimentation in barely over five years. Even the Pope has spoken in support. In just the last six months it moved from the novelty candidacy of Andrew Yang and fringe Silicon Valley supporters to the support of traditionally liberal mayors across the United States, in no small part as a way of addressing racial inequalities:

This week, [Stockton, CA mayor] Tubbs announced the formation of the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income Coalition, a group of city leaders who have committed to investigating how to launch direct guaranteed income projects in their communities, and advocating for state and federal solutions.

The majority of the mayors are Black, and hail from places like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Compton, Newark, Shreveport, St. Paul, and Jackson, Mississippi; the 11 cities they govern have a collective population of 7 million, and more cities expected to join. (Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto announced that he’s number 12, in a tweet.)

“We don’t necessarily agree on everything, but we do agree that our constituents deserve an income floor,” Tubbs said of the group.

The idea has encountered the expected opposition from the Right, and no surprise there: combined with progressive taxation, it may well be the purest form of social redistribution in the policy toolbox. Centrists and moderates have long shied away from it because of America’s unique obsession with individual moral hazard: Americans consistently support broad social welfare, right up until they feel their “hard-working tax dollars” are going to “those Other lazy people.” This is obviously inextricably intertwined with white America’s history of white supremacy and grievance. Benefits for white people are just a hand-up in hard times; benefits for anyone else are a hand-out to the undeserving. Liberal moderates, stung by electoral defeat after defeat since the days of Nixon, have tried hard to avoid getting stuck too strongly in this cultural vise–much to the frustration of the rising progressive left.

But many not actively engaged in the leftist organizing sphere may not realize that there has also been major opposition from the left. Anti-UBI leftists see it as a libertarian techbro camel’s nose under the tent to weaken social safety nets and undermine the power of labor. The fear among these leftists is that if social support for the working class is disentangled from actual labor leverage, then all hope of workers’ empowerment may be eroded. In a traditional Marxist framework, the only pathway to helping workers is through increasing worker control of the means of production, and maximizing the power of workers by easily enabling them to withhold their labor from the elites who profit from it.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has exposed one of the flaws of this framework. Worker control of the means of production only goes so far when the public policy goal is to minimize production and keep workers at home. How do you use the power of organized labor for leverage, when workers are increasingly expendable and a pandemic is accelerating the shift to an automated and decentralized workforce? And how does one continue to morally justify a workforce-oriented approach to social and economic justice, when there is a pandemic principally affecting “essential workers” who also happen to be primarily people of color–even as middle-class whites are increasingly furloughed with benefits or working from home? Labor indeed remains a crucial component of justice organizing. But never before has the social justice case for, say, automating increasingly obsolete, dehumanizing and now-dangerous grocery cashier or restaurant service work and delivering the dividend straight to the people who used to do that work been more obvious. Finally, it has also become apparent just how dependent modern capitalism is on consumption as the path toward maintaining wealth. Capitalists are always finding ways of automating or offshoring labor–but they literally cannot make a profit if no one is buying their corporation’s products. It turns out that consumers with money to spend in a democratic society with the power to protest and vote may not be as powerless as once feared.

It has become increasingly obvious that economic support for the downtrodden 99% will require an all-hands-on-deck approach combining both new and old approaches and frameworks: both increased worker and democratic control of production through more powerful labor unions, but also baseline cash grants to those for whom a labor-oriented approach may be inadequate in a modern globalized, de-industrialized, decentralized and increasingly automated economy.

It is also increasingly viewed as a potentially essential tool for countering white supremacy and endemic poverty among people of color where means tested benefits add another layer of bureaucratic pain and social humiliation. And if the UBI benefit is broadly shared across the racial and economic spectrum, it will be harder for wealthy conservatives to use it as a racist or classist wedge.

There will, of course, be attempts from both the right and the corporate-friendly center-left to use universal basic income in the way that many leftists fear–as a substitute for traditional benefits and worker empowerment that both undermines labor and decreases net social welfare payments. But avoiding this pitfall and making sure that UBI complements rather than detracts from existing empowerment structures is simply a matter of political organizing, as with so much else. The usefulness of a policy should not be discarded simply because of its potential for abuse if implemented by the wrong hands.

It will be interesting to see how experiments in Universal Basic Income fare in America’s cities. Experiments abroad in Finland and elsewhere have met with success, especially if you assume that the goal of UBI is to increase happiness and well-being, rather than to drag the unemployed back into the workforce. Many questions as to scale and implementation remain. But its rise from the unthinkable to the possible has been remarkable, precipitated in large part by necessity. Between the pandemic and the scale of white supremacist sentiments evidenced by the election of Donald Trump, it has never been clearer that we need to consider a variety of new leftist approaches to economic, environmental and social justice. Universal Basic Income is rapidly becoming a key part of the new framework.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.