The Progressive Case for the Universal Basic Income

Progressives often see the universal basic income (UBI) as a Trojan horse devised by conservatives to dismantle the welfare state and replace it with something less adequate. But UBI would improve individual welfare, enhance individual freedom, and promote individual dignity. It is certainly the program the poor would design for themselves. Even better, by expanding the constituency of the current welfare system to every adult American, UBI would be far more immune to the death by a thousand cuts that threatens contemporary programs.

Despite the endless arguments in the political arena over the causes of poverty, it should be obvious that the true cause is a lack of money. Yes, there are structural and individual factors that keep people poor, but providing a poor person with resources makes them no longer poor. And yet, conservatives and progressives are content to continue the same inefficient anti-poverty programs and argue over the level of funding rather than just sending folks a check.

Take, for instance, the SNAP program, which distributes food stamps to millions of low-income families each month. In 2006, according to a Brookings Institution study, the program cost $35.8 billion. For every dollar of food stamps issued, state and federal governments spent 15.8 cents administering the program. This doesn’t count the costs incurred by families themselves – filling out lengthy application forms, attending in-person interviews, providing documentation and passing drug tests.

These costs outpace what most Americans think is the most expensive factor in anti-poverty programs, fraud and waste. A Department of Agriculture report found that the rate of food stamp fraud – people illegally exchanging benefits for cash – was 1.3 cents for every food stamp dollar issued between 2009 and 2011. And this is only one of 126 federal anti-poverty programs.

The SNAP example, which I’ve written about previously, illustrates the folly of substituting the judgment of a civil servant for that of any citizen in private affairs. For one, even the smartest and most dedicated government official is unlikely to spend as much time thinking about how much some random person should spend on groceries as that person will. Furthermore, giving people more grocery money than they want does not stop them from trading the benefits for something they do want – it just makes it harder and forces the government to spend money enforcing the rules. If we would let people make their own choices with the resources we believe they need to survive, we could save everyone a lot of grief in the process.

The fact that many continue to insist on work requirements for welfare, or in-kind assistance rather than cash assistance, reflects a pernicious belief in our society: that the poor are incapable of making good choices for themselves, which is why they need assistance in the first place. It’s the same dim view of our fellow citizens which underlies one argument against UBI – that people would stop working en masse and become layabouts. This is preposterous, if only because most people are not content to sit around hovering just above poverty all day. But it also misses an important point – namely, that government programs are a poor mechanism for social engineering. Poverty does not create sloth. There will always be lazy people, scheming people, generally unpleasant people – we cannot legislate or plan them out of existence. Instead of designing policies for the lowest common denominator, we should create policies that affirm the dignity of individual choice, regardless of social status. UBI would do this.

Sadly, while populist outrage over the misdeeds of corporations and elites has risen in recent years, there is still little enthusiasm for addressing income inequality through measures that smack of wealth redistribution. This is one reason that anti-poverty programs remain widely unpopular – the perception that the government is taking from “us” to give to “them.” It is no secret that racialized views of poverty also contribute to the unpopularity of these programs. The ironclad portions of the federal budget, like Medicare and Social Security, are protected precisely because the many have a stake, rather than the few. For progressives, UBI offers the best hope for broadening the constituency for anti-poverty programs beyond the poor to include everyone else.

At the end of the day, while UBI would most benefit those living at the margins of our society, it would also give those of us working jobs just to live the freedom to find something more meaningful. It would free us from the necessity of having to struggle for the basics, making our society happier, healthier and more democratic. Perhaps UBI is just another crackpot theory – but a guy can dream.

Sebastian Johnson, US


Sebastian Johnson is a policy fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in Washington, DC. He earned a Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Economy at Georgetown University and The London School of Economics. Johnson joined Teach for America in 2010, and taught elementary school in Lawrence, MA. He is originally from Montgomery County, MD.

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