Universal basic income is the practice of dispensing periodic cash payments to individuals, regardless of their financial or employment status. It is different from a welfare program in that you do not have to take a means test to determine your eligibility. You don’t have to prove that you make less than a certain amount, or that you recently lost your job. Basic income gives unconditionally, implying that it doesn’t distinguish between recipients who earn a full-time income and recipients who don’t work at all.
Those against basic income often argue that it would raise taxes on the wealthy, and could inspire the recipients to work less. On the flip side, those in favor of basic income believe it could help eliminate poverty, and financially protect the work force as more and more jobs are lost to automation. While the idea of basic income has been around for centuries, interest and activism has been increasing since 2010. However, what it would look like if it were implemented in the U.S. is still largely unknown. If you’re looking to learn more about basic income, here are a few things you may not know:
1. One of the arguments for basic income is that jobs we have today will be automated in the future. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Solar City, SpaceX, and Tesla, recently told CNBC, “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation.”
He went on to say that he was unsure of what else we would do. Already, workers all over the world are losing jobs to automation; we use travel-booking sites over a travel agent and self-check out rather than going to a cashier. As technology advances, and we move toward self-driving cars and A.I. assistants, this will only continue to take jobs from a capable work force. CNBC, citing an Oxford University survey, reports that “47 percent of U.S. jobs will potentially be replaced by robots and automated technology in the next 10 to 20 years.”
2. Basic income is not a new idea. In fact, it dates back to the 1500s. In Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516), it is pointed out that basic income could help deter thieves from stealing. Slightly more recently, Thomas Paine (who wrote Common Sense) hashed out the idea, which was then called “basic endowment.” Martin Luther King also advocated for basic income in the 1960s. He saw what he called “guaranteed annual income” as a natural progression of the civil rights movement.
3. There are already basic income pilot programs and support for the idea in the U.S. and abroad. In France, there are two socialist candidates—Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Bennahmias—publicly supporting basic income. Finland has become the first European country to roll out a basic income trial. In India, basic income is viewed as a potential solution to help alleviate poverty and there have already been pilot programs in different regions. In the U.S., there is a forthcoming pilot program in San Francisco. Alaska already has a basic income-adjacent system in place for residents. The Permanent Fund Dividend in Alaska has been paying dividends to the state’s residents since 1982. In 2015, Alaska gave each of its residents $2,000 cash from its Permanent Fund Dividend. According to Basicincome.org, “The Alaska Dividend is the closest policy to a basic income in the world today.”
4. Basic income doesn’t necessarily have to pay everyone a living wage. Basic income could conceivably dispense enough each month to bring every recipient above the poverty line. However, it does not require a pay out that would keep citizens above the poverty line. The Finland pilot program will give each participant €560 ($587) a month.
5. While the Permanent Fund Dividend program in Alaska may currently be the closest the world has come to basic income, the U.S. is still behind several countries in terms of testing out the system. However, the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment is putting $5 million into a basic income pilot program. It is unclear, as of now, how many people will participate or what the payments will look like. Oakland will also test out basic income, as a way to face poverty head on, an effort which will be facilitated by Silicon Valley-based Y Combinator.