How is Stockton, CA’s Take on UBI Not Welfare?

The issue of Universal Basic Income, a monthly stipend with no strings attached, is not as straightforward as some may presume. UBI, as its purest proponents argue, would be administered in an atmosphere completely free of the other forms of social welfare that exist in American and other societies.

Were such a singular form of cash ‘income’ – or welfare, depending on your choice of term – to be tried in lieu of the hodge-podge of social programs, more people would be inclined to give it a try. Even then, critics of ‘universal income’ would still emerge, exposing differing worldviews on human nature and how it does or doesn’t vary from person to person.

Those who argue for UBI cite the inevitable increase in artificial intelligence as necessitating some form of universal income for increasing numbers of people structurally boxed out of the work force. Respected intellectuals, including the right-leaning Charles Murray, have argued that, despite our massive spending on welfare programs, the numbers of those who work into their twilight years without health benefits, if they can find a job at all to remain above destitution, is inexplicable and unacceptable. This is particularly true considering the massive amount spent by the federal bureaucracy on social programs and the unprecedented wealth of the population as a whole. Essentially, money aimed at raising the financial floor for those who receive it is not having the desired effect, so why not spend that money on a more straightforward, effective system?

Here’s one example of the proposed system, courtesy of the National Review:

'Under a UBI, the federal government would send each American (including children, in some plans) a monthly check of, say, $800 or $1,000 to cover basic needs. A couple would receive $20,000 per year, regardless of other income earned; a family with children would get more.’

In a nutshell, the argument for such a system:

  • the amount of income listed would not allow recipients to shirk work completely, as some have suggested, as it is not enough to truly ‘live’ on.
  • other evidence has suggested that granting the poor the ability to spend actual money can be empowering, imparting a sense of responsibility that leads to wiser spending decisions.
  • Instead of a bureaucracy making decisions about who deserves and receives what portions of money, the UBI system would allow the return of mutual aid, a system pre-dating most welfare states in which neighbors, friends, and families took charity and financial assistance of those in need into their own hands.
    • ‘Family and neighbors played their part but because their help was informal and undocumented historians have tended to underestimate it. Charity was also important and it is often supposed that organize welfare before the welfare state was left to charities, but by far the most important organized method by which people met the needs of their fellows was mutual aid.’ (Students for Liberty)
    • In other words, the wealthy who would theoretically receive their own allotment under the UBI system would be able to give that payment in a way that they saw fit, to a person or family they deemed worthy or in need. This would be taken out of the hands of bureaucrats disconnected with individual neighborhoods and societies, the power put back into the hands of those who observe and understand the differing complexities of America’s vast array of neighborhoods.

These talking points, even from a conservative perspective, make it clear that a system of UBI has merit, in terms of removing power from the bureaucratically ordered system, which any objective observer would admit has failed to achieve its purported goals. It’s only fair to outline the arguments of those who oppose a system of universal basic income, then explain how the differing viewpoints do or don’t apply to the system being tested in the recently-bankrupt city of Stockton, CA.

The argument against, in terms of principle, is summed up succinctly by National Review’s Oren Cass:

‘A UBI would redefine the relationship between individuals, families, communities, and the state by giving government the role of provider. It would make work optional and render self-reliance moot. An underclass dependent on government handouts would no longer be one of society’s greatest challenges but instead would be recast as one of its proudest achievements.’

Inherent to the concept of UBI, some assert, is the inherent lack of value that comes with money not earned. While many would give that money back to charitable causes or use it to advance their lives, professionally and personally, the worry is that far too many would actually be satisfied living off that amount, to eventual regret. That $20,000 given by the government through taxation of the fellow citizen could lead those who do justify accepting the money to feel self-loathing, whether they are acutely aware of that guilt or not.

Plus, the government and technocrats would be hailing your receipt of that money as not only justified, but something that the society as a whole should be proud of. The logic behind UBI, specifics aside, is not dissimilar from welfare: we should feel good about helping out those in need, fulfilling our duty to society and fellow man.

Remember, most of the welfare programs we have come to see as ineffective and representative of the slippery slope of human complacency and greed, contributing to the erosion of the family and thus society, sounded like good ideas to many at the time of their enactment. For now, UBI sounds good to many, but it is as susceptible to human nature’s insatiability as food stamp or child rearing for money programs have proven to be.

Which brings us to the case of Stockton, which proponents of UBI would argue is not truly representative of the idealized system. After all, the trials being conducted in Stockton, are being held in an environment where other forms of welfare still exist. It's not pure UBI, but it is being pitched as such by many who don't understand the conditions that constitute 'pure UBI'.

Not to make the leap, but that sounds like the hair-splitting arguments we often hear from the pro-socialism crowd. While it is technically correct, it ignores the realities about human nature and melting pot societies that seem to always befall the best intentions of social welfare, socialism, and in this case, what would potentially befall the best intentions of a UBI-embracing society.

In 2012, Stockton became the nation’s largest case of bankruptcy on record. Exorbitant payments to civil employees was just one of the many factors that led to Stockton’s undoing. Now, almost six years later, the city remains plagued by widespread poverty and unemployment rates. Searching for answers that the agriculture-based economy has failed to provide, mayor Michael Tubbs seems to believe a relatively miniscule payment which reeks of a half-assed attempt at UBI will be a step in the right direction.

That’s right, the same city that was undone in large part by reckless government spending is proposing more appeasement spending that doesn’t eliminate any of the other social programs, only adding a cash payment on top of them. Admittedly, this is not UBI. It’s UBI, Stockton-style.

‘The so-called “SEED” project will give a small group of low-income residents a modest, no-strings-attached monthly income. Funded by a million-dollar private grant from a tech group called the Economic Security Project — co-led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes — SEED creates a real-world research model of what’s known as universal basic income.’ (CBS San Francisco)

Chris Hughes is too smart not to ask the inevitable questions that this proposal prompts. For one, what happens when this privately funded money runs out? Will a $500 payment have been enough to get these recipient families on their feet? And, further what is $500 really going to do for a family on a monthly basis, especially in a city not far from Silicon Valley which faces the ever-rising housing prices and cost of living that all San Francisco suburbs do?

Then there’s this completely misguided rationale that will somehow be used to justify expanding this incomplete form of UBI, in all likelihood:

‘The yearlong program will track what residents do with the money and how having a universal basic income affects their self-esteem and identity.’ (CBS SF)

Tying money given, not earned, to one’s self-esteem is so wrongheaded it’s almost unbelievable. That is, if it weren’t a rationale coming out of California. Considering its place of origin, it makes complete sense in its idiocy.

Those who are receiving the free money are going to say that their self-esteem was boosted by the government (read taxpayer) provided cash. But was it really? Anybody who has worked for their money knows that, unless this money is used directly to facilitate professional advancement, the answer is almost certainly no.

And where do we get off tying money, especially money that has been handed out with ‘no strings attached’ to self-esteem? The idea seems so anti-California in its political incorrectness (money = status/esteem), but also so very California in its illogical roots.

Far from a real economic floor, as mayor Tubbs refers to a paltry $500 per month as, and with little differentiation from the appeasement programs that have come to discourage the poor in society from staving off the government teat, this is not the radical change in social welfare that UBI’s most highly-educated proponents have proposed. To mention it in the same breath as UBI is to do the whole concept of UBI a disservice.

What is going on in Stockton is another form of half-cooked welfare, and if it is allowed to proceed to a greater stage under the guise of UBI, it should be rejected wholeheartedly by those who oppose real forms of UBI and those who support a real form of UBI.

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