From Dr. King & Richard Nixon to Andrew Yang & Jack Dorsey
Supporters of Universal Basic Income have included a surprising mix of allies - civil rights leaders, conservative economists, tech billionaires, and even a Republican President.
While discussions about UBI in the United States date back to the country's founding, the debate in America really began to take off in the early 1960s.
In 1962, economist Milton Friedman argued in his book, Capitalism and Freedom, for the creation of a negative income tax to alleviate poverty. It was a groundbreaking idea at the time and would have served much like a basic income.
Four years later, the liberal economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, also began advocating for a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the two economists in arguing that a guaranteed income was the simplest and most effective way to abolish poverty.
And two years after Dr. King’s book, President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Income Maintenance Programs unanimously endorsed a “universal income supplement program.”
Over the course of the decade, momentum seemed to be growing. A number of both prominent conservatives and progressives had come to understand how a basic income could change society for the better.
What may be particularly surprising to many Americans is that Republican President Richard Nixon also seriously considered a negative income tax, discussing it in a televised address to the nation in November, 1969. Building off of Friedman’s idea, his initiative was known as the Family Assistance Plan.
It had strong support in the House of Representatives, but insufficient support in the Senate where it died.
While Nixon dropped the idea, in 1972, Senator George McGovern proposed his own negative income tax in his campaign for President. McGovern, however, had, perhaps, not thought out all the details of his proposal nor was he fully prepared to defend it. He was blasted for it by his Democratic rival for the presidency, Senator Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey, sensing a political opportunity, was pushing his own competing social programs.
President Lyndon Johnson
Tax Credits, Work Requirements, & Smaller Government
As the '70s progressed, lawmakers, intrigued by Friedman's negative income tax idea, continued to look toward the tax code as a way to try to address poverty and inequality. Their plans, however, had dual goals: helping the less fortunate while also encouraging work. In 1975, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) was passed into law. It represented a truly significant change in social policy and has been one of the country's most powerful tools for lifting millions of people out of poverty.
However, like many New Deal and Great Society programs before it, the EITC is limited only to certain Americans who meet specific requirements. It fails to help people who are unable to work or can't find a job. And, given the way it is structured, it is not designed for quick and regular assistance in the case, for example, of a layoff or a personal financial emergency. While extremely beneficial for some, it lacks the flexibility to solve the kinds of economic and social problems that a UBI program could.
THE ALASKA EXPERIMENT: A UBI FRONTIER
While the U.S. does not yet have a national UBI program, the state of Alaska established a direct annual payment to every Alaskan in 1982. The Alaska Permanent Fund dividend is based on the state's oil revenues. It is widely popular and paid every Alaskan $1,606 in 2019.
Nonetheless, over the course of the proceeding decades, the program has remained very popular with both Democrats and Republicans. In addition, it fit well with the "limited government" philosophy of the Reagan/Bush era as well as the Clinton era efforts to place work restrictions on welfare.
In 1997, another popular tax credit, the Child Tax Credit, was also passed with bipartisan support and signed by President Bill Clinton.
It was more broadly designed not only to address poverty, but also to provide tax relief to middle class and working families.
With the turn of the century, George W. Bush's strong emphasis on tax cuts only further cemented the use of our federal tax code as the preferred way for the government to try to put money into people's pockets. UBI had little hope of gaining traction in that political environment.
A Financial Crash, Automation, & a Pandemic
Over the past dozen years, the political environment has started to shift again. The financial crash of 2008 was a wakeup call for many Americans about both the financial stability of the U.S. economy and the economic security of their own families. The crisis led to a rise in movements like Occupy Wall Street, who want more accountability from Wall Street and the big banks and also are more broadly critical of the way in which American capitalism currently operates.
Meanwhile, debates about automation now loom larger than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. Robots, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies present growing risks to the workforce. And, it isn’t just entry-level jobs that are at stake. Pharmacists, lawyers, accountants & auditors, doctors, and architects are all seeing significant portions of their jobs automated, risking massive displacement for many.
Fears about these rapid changes on the horizon have shifted the political tone and also led to the recent rise of political candidates, like Andrew Yang, who speak directly to these growing concerns. Yang, as a presidential candidate, helped to raise UBI to an unprecedented level of public awareness over the past couple of years and he is a significant contributor in bringing the issue back into mainstream politics. His unconventional candidacy helped to spark new discussions, increased media coverage, and UBI activism around the country.
Yang, however, is not the only one sounding alarms.
OVER 180,000 CAB DRIVERS, 600,000+ UBER & LYFT DRIVERS & 3.5 MILLION TRUCK DRIVERS RISK LOSING JOBS TO SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES IN THE COMING DECADES.
THE MCKINSEY GLOBAL INSTITUTE PREDICTS THAT UP TO 54% OF THE 13.7 MILLION JOBS IN RESTAURANT & HOTELS ARE CURRENTLY PRIMED FOR AUTOMATION.
Increasingly, a number of business leaders, politicians, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and prominent billionaires have started to speak out about growing inequality and the economic vulnerability faced by tens of millions of American families. They see the risks of automation and technological disruption on the horizon and understand how UBI could help address the shortcomings in our economic system.
CLICK ON A PHOTO TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THESE THOUGHT LEADERS' VIEWS ON UBI.
Now, in 2020, the U.S. finds itself in the middle of a pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen in over a century. COVID-19 has changed politics forever. Requirements to stay-at-home & extreme social distancing are bringing the economy to a stand still. These difficult times recently led to a bipartisan relief package from Congress which includes direct cash payments of $1,200 to many Americans. Such a groundbreaking program would have had little political momentum a year before, but cataclysmic events can quickly shift our perceptions of what’s politically possible and what’s politically necessary.
We now have an opportunity to build a stronger country out of this tragic and challenging situation. Calls for a better and fairer America are growing. We can finally create the economic safety net envisioned by those bold thinkers of the 1960s and ‘70s. We can anticipate and prepare for the threats of automation and the risks of another national emergency or financial disaster. And, we can address the inherent unfairness in our capitalist system and ensure basic financial security for everyone.