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A majority of U.S. adults oppose universal basic income (UBI), according to a mid-August Pew Research Center report.

When asked if they would favor or oppose a $1,000 per month government payment to all citizens, 54% of respondents opposed this (36% strongly and 18% somewhat), while 45% favored it (23% strongly and 22% somewhat).

Black (73%) and Hispanic (63%) respondents were far more likely than white respondents (35%) to favor a UBI, while those aged 18-34 (64%) were far more likely than those aged 35-49 (45%), 50-64 (40%) and 65-plus (26%) to do so.

UBI received increased attention in recent months when Andrew Yang, then a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, proposed a UBI plan called “the freedom dividend.”

Reading the Pew report, I decided to learn more about UBI. Here is what I found, which is shared not to offer a position but simply to provide a general “lay of the land.”

  1. What is UBI?

The fundamental component is direct government payments to individuals without any requirements or restrictions.

Funds are intended to meet the most basic needs of individuals, with any additional earned income helping the person move beyond subsistence level.

Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), a United Kingdom nonprofit, offers a history of UBI and lists five characteristics that comprise UBI. They said this:

  1. Periodic: It is paid at regular intervals (for example, every month), not as a one-off grant.
  2. Cash payment: It is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.
  3. Individual: It is paid on an individual basis – and not, for instance, to households.
  4. Universal: It is paid to all, without means test.
  5. Unconditional: It is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness to work.

For those who want to learn more, Juliana Uhuru Bidadanure’s article, “The Political Theory of Universal Basic Income” in the Annual Review of Political Science (2019 22:1, 481-501), offers a more detailed overview of UBI.

While advocating for UBI, Bidadanure – an assistant professor of philosophy at Stanford University, and the founder and faculty director of the Stanford Basic Income Lab – offers a helpful framework for better understanding the concept and the general contours of the debate.

  1. What are some of the arguments in favor of UBI?

Someone could have a job and still be impoverished. By providing a subsistence-level income to everyone, an effective social safety net is established to meet basic needs and ensure that earned income can lift people out of poverty.

UBI eliminates disincentives found in current welfare systems in which a person can lose benefits when a job is obtained, even if pay isn’t sufficient to improve economic status or escape poverty.

It removes cumbersome and convoluted rules and regulations about work and income requirements present in current social safety net programs.

UBI avoids paternalism and stigmatization that come with government assistance programs by offering funds to all citizens and giving them the freedom to spend their money as they choose.

It helps offset the negative impacts of job loss due to automatization, globalization or economic downturns.

UBI allows people to pursue work about which they are passionate, rather than endure employment at a job that is neither enjoyable nor life giving – and, in some cases, dangerous, degrading or exploitative – simply so they can survive.

A few of the articles I reviewed in compiling this list can be found here, here and here.

  1. What are a few of the arguments against it?

It would be incredibly expensive, requiring significant changes in taxation to ensure its viability and/or the reduction (or possibly the elimination) of current social safety net programs.

Direct cash payments without any qualifications or requirements would provide a disincentive to work, which would make it more difficult to adequately fund.

Those who work should not be required to support, via income taxes, those who could work but choose to pursue other activities.

UBI would not address income inequality because every person would receive the same amount each month. By not having needs-based criteria, money is given to people who don’t actually need it, and the monthly funds have different levels of buying power in different parts of the nation.

Replacing current safety net programs with UBI is unlikely to fully address the needs of the most vulnerable, resulting in people remaining impoverished, food insecure and without adequate health care but without specific programs designed to meet those needs.

Many essential jobs might not be the first choice for someone who is pursuing their passion, but such work still has to be done. UBI would make it more challenging to ensure essential services are provided.

Focusing on improving the needs-based systems and enacting a negative income tax for the low wage-earners is a more effective, and affordable, approach.

A few of the articles I read in putting together this list can be found here, here and here.

My takeaway is that UBI is a straightforward concept with lots of complexities, nuances and variations regarding how it could be implemented and funded – and what the impacts this shift in social safety net provisions would have.

“As always, the devil is in the details,” Bidadanure summarizes. “Proponents and opponents alike also risk talking past each other if they discuss UBI without being clear on the policy contenders they are writing about and the precise package of policies UBI would complement to achieve the goals of a more just society … Clarity on what UBI would complement or replace is just as important as clarity on what is meant by UBI in the first place.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Labor Day. The previous articles in the series are:

Don’t Let Anxiety Fatigue Claim the Victory | Elizabeth Denham Thompson

Have Churches Pursued Justice for Laborers? | Bill Pitts

The Labor Day Paradox: A Day of Not-Work | Amanda Novack

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